PITTSBURGH -- Marc Staal said he never doubted.
Never gave up hope that despite the concussion, despite the serious eye injury, he could get back to being the player he was before. The one who was a first-round draft pick, who played in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game and was on his way to becoming the next great New York Rangers defenseman.
Now that he's fully healthy, the hockey world is seeing what Staal, 27, always believed would happen.
Through eight games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Staal has one goal, one assist and a team-best plus-7 rating while averaging 20:24 per game in ice time. He raised that level even higher in the Rangers' 3-2 overtime win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing a game-high 26:03. On every one of his 25 even-strength shifts he was head-to-head against one of the Penguins' dynamic centers, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
So heading into Game 2 on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS), if anyone was wondering how Staal is doing, he'll tell you he's just fine.
It just took him a while to get there.
"I don't think there's an exact moment [that I felt like myself]," Staal said. "Throughout the year I was just trying to get better and better, get back to the level I'm used to playing at."
He's certainly better now than he was the previous two seasons.
His issues started late in the 2010-11 season, when a hit by his brother, Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, left Marc with a concussion. He played through it for the remainder of the season but was feeling the effects when 2011-12 began. He sat out the first half of the season, making his debut Jan. 2, 2012, but wasn't particularly effective when he returned, finishing with two goals, five points and a minus-7 rating in 46 regular-season games. He was a bit better as the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, with three goals and six points in 20 playoff games.
He was healthy when the 2012-13 season started, but that ended when he was hit in the face by a puck shot by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen during a game March 5, 2013. Staal returned for one game in the 2013 playoffs but his vision wasn't where it needed to be for him to be effective.
It was unknown how 2013-14 would turn out.
"You have ups and downs through any season," Staal said. "Coming back from injuries is not the easiest thing. For me it was just all the abilities and things that I've done are still there. Nothing's changed that way. I think it was just a matter of doing it consistently. Try to do that all year long, to get better and better."
Teammates certainly were rooting for him.
"Since I've been here he's had a tough time with injures," forward Brad Richards said. "The year before I got here we played them, the year he went to the All-Star Game, we played them in Dallas and he was on the ice for 30-plus minutes, stick so long. I remember playing against him and it was a very hard game against him. Since then, we've only been able to see a little bit of it because of all the major injuries he's had."
Forward Derek Stepan, who lived with Staal for a time last season, said Staal has been a source of encouragement during his four NHL seasons.
"I've got nothing but good things to say about Marc Staal," Stepan said. "Since I've been here, he's been a guy that I can lean on, a guy that during the lockout I didn't have an apartment and I was able to stay with him. He's been a good friend to me. As a leader, you see the way he plays down the stretch here, we rally around that because he played so great. Off the ice you know how Marc is. He always seems to be in a good mood. He's a guy that you can certainly enjoy yourself around."
In 72 regular-season games, Staal had three goals and 14 points while playing an average of 20:31 per game, settling into a spot on the second pairing with Anton Stralman.
Coach Alain Vigneault said prior to joining the Rangers in the summer of 2013 he knew Staal only by reputation; coaching the Vancouver Canucks the previous seven seasons gave him little chance to see Staal in person. But from what he's watched this season, he said he's been impressed by how Staal continually has gotten better as the season has gone on, and that's carried over into the postseason.
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 7 | +/-: 7
"We always knew he was a good defender and he still is one of the best defenders in the League," Vigneault said. "But this year he's improved his puck decisions. Moving the puck, helping us break out of our end, and he's a player that still has room to improve and I'm confident he will."
Staal credits more time on the ice rather than the trainer's room with his improved decision-making.
"I think the more hockey you play the more automatic things become," he said. "You get into a groove as the season goes along where you're not really thinking too much on the ice and you're just playing. For a large part at the beginning of the year I was thinking about what I should do next instead of just reacting and playing. Those decisions become natural and automatic to you. It wasn't there in the beginning but throughout the year it's gotten better. On the ice I felt that being more confident with what you're doing and just reacting to it."
Now that he's back to just playing rather than thinking too much, he's focused on doing it on a consistent basis.
"It's just trying to get wins and playing playoff games," Staal said. "It's a lot of fun."