NEW YORK, N.Y. - Key defenceman Marc Staal returned to the New York Rangers lineup Monday night for the first time since he was struck near his right eye by a deflected puck on March 5.
Staal logged 17 minutes, 17 seconds of ice time in 21 shifts of the Rangers' 4-3 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the best-of-seven, first-round series.
New York still trails 2-1 in the matchup, but can get even with a win in Game 4 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
"I thought I would be more nervous than I was," said Staal, who wore a visor. "I felt pretty good going into the game, and I think the confidence is going to grow the more I'm out there and the more I'm in game situations.
"I'll feel a lot better next game."
Rangers coach John Tortorella certainly wasn't going to wait any longer to get Staal right back into the heart of the action. Once Staal was given the go-ahead to play, Tortorella took advantage of the much-needed lineup addition.
"Even before you step on the ice, it really helps the room," Tortorella said. "He's so well-respected. He's so well-liked. There are times when you can tell it's going to take a little bit to totally get back, but he made some really big plays at key times, too.
"Just the speed of the game is what he's going to have to get used to."
Staal's return came at a critical time for the Rangers, who were in desperate need of a win after losing the first two games of the series in Washington and mustered only one goal in the process.
"It's huge," forward Derek Stepan said of Staal's return. "He makes the D-core calm. He's got a presence about him that he can just control a game. He did a great job. Early on, I think he had a little bit of the jitters, but he found a way to just get back to himself."
The Madison Square Garden crowd cheered wildly when Staal was shown on the centre-ice video board as part of the starting lineup before the national anthem.
"Once we knew he could play, he was going in the top four (defencemen)," Tortorella said.
Steve Eminger was scratched from the lineup to make room for Staal, who was on the ice for Jay Beagle's tying goal for Washington in the third period.
Rangers forward Ryane Clowe (suspected concussion) remained out, and New York also lost Darroll Powe in the first period when the forward was elbowed in the head by Washington's Joel Ward.
Powe remained down on the ice briefly after the hit as play went on. He then gingerly made his way to the bench and didn't play the final 11:18 of the period. The Rangers said in between periods that Powe's return was questionable, but he didn't get back onto the ice.
Powe played only two shifts, totalling 2:33 of ice time.