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Rangers' Staal excited to be healthy for playoff run

by Tal Pinchevsky

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- To a man, the New York Rangers are looking forward to their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, RDS, TSN), defenseman Marc Staal may be itching for the opening faceoff just a little more than his teammates.

It's been some time since he last enjoyed a playoff run.

This time last year, Staal was forced to watch the Rangers in the playoffs while he recovered from an eye injury. He missed two months before returning for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Washington Capitals. After logging 17:17 of ice time, he was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason. A little more than two weeks later, New York was eliminated in the second round by the Boston Bruins.

Entering this season's playoffs fully healthy and at the top of his game, Staal admits Game 1 can't come fast enough.

"It's the best time of year. It's one thing to watch games during the regular season, it's another to watch them during the playoffs and know that you can't do anything," Staal said. "You want to be there competing with everyone. Obviously I'm thrilled to get that chance again to compete for the Stanley Cup."

Staal enjoyed a fine comeback season after struggling with injuries last year. It was against the Flyers on March 5, 2013, when a Kimmo Timonen slap shot was deflected and hit the defenseman in the eye. The injury immediately put Staal's season, and potentially his career, in jeopardy. It's a scary moment he's happy not to have to think about too often.

"I don't like to look back too much on the past, but you remember the feeling of just sitting there watching," Staal said. "You would give anything to be on the ice and be able to play in a playoff game. It's just so much fun. You play all season long to get a chance at it. We do again this year. It's an exciting time."

Staal missed 10 games this December with a concussion, but in recent weeks has played some of his best hockey since first sustaining the eye injury, which hasn't been an issue this season. His teammates are excited at the prospect of having one of their top defensemen back and healthy for what they hope will be a lengthy run. The last time Staal played a full slate of playoff games, the Rangers advanced to the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, where they lost in six games to the New Jersey Devils.

"I think he's really excited. Talking in the last few days with him, he seems excited about the situation we've got ourselves in here," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "I know he's excited to make hopefully a long run here and make an impact every time he steps out on the ice. He's making great plays. He expects that out of himself. He should be huge in the playoffs."

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