PHILADELPHIA – He had long ruled it out.
Marc Staal, injured with a concussion and out the entire season, had ruled himself out of the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
“I kind of wrote it off for a long time, just because when the day came and I wasn’t playing, it wouldn’t bother me as much,” Staal said.
Then, last night, in a lengthy phone conversation with his doctors, Staal heard the words he’s been hoping to hear for months.
“We’ve been in constant contact with Dr. Cantu and our medical staff,” Staal said in the victorious Rangers locker room after a 3-2 win by New York in the NHL’s showcase event. “I had a long conversation with him yesterday, he said it doesn’t matter if you get hit tomorrow or you get hit five days from now, it’s not going to make a difference in the effects on you. He said if I was physically and mentally ready to play a game, he had no problem with me jumping in.”
The Rangers defenseman, long-regarded as the Rangers top back-liner, gave his teammates a huge jolt of adrenalin when they heard he was cleared.
“I was really impressed with the [temporary] ice [surface at Citizens Bank Park], but I was almost more impressed by Staal coming back,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. ”I actually didn’t know he was going to play the game. When I saw him out there, I was shocked. It’s not easy coming here and playing your first game in [seven] months. Outstanding. The confidence he will bring to our group is going to be big.”
“I thought he was really good,” said fellow defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has stepped up to Dan Girardi’s left side in Staal’s absence. “He definitely just has a presence about him when he’s out there, with his big body, his big reach. He’s tough to get around. He’s so good with the puck, he’s smart positionally, he’s an All-Star. It’s no coincidence he steps up in a big game for us.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella, while making the announcement shortly before 1 p.m. Monday afternoon, said he was going to ease Staal back into the lineup after he hadn’t played since last year’s playoff series against Washington.
Staal played only 12:41 and registered one hit. But his play on the penalty kill late in the third period is what resonates with his teammates the most.
“He played some crucial minutes,” said McDonagh. “He was huge on that penalty kill with five minutes left in the third that I took. I was just really happy that he’s progressed so well, and that he was able to get into this game, contribute, and help us win.”
Bringing Staal back into the lineup meant Tortorella had to make a gut-wrenching move; Jeff Woywitka, who expected to play, was forced to watch the Winter Classic from the press box.
“I feel terrible about taking Jeff out, he’s in that lineup and ready to play this type of game right up until last night after the meal,” Tortorella said. “I don’t feel great about that, but he was terrific when I talked to him. He understands if Marc Staal says yes to me, he’s going to play.”
It will take Staal some time to regain some of the skills left rusty by his long stay on the injured list. But no one around the Blueshirts are concerned. They’ve got their top defenseman back on a blue-line that has already proven itself as one of the best in the league.
“The game was pretty quick for him, he admitted it early on those first few shifts,” said Tortorella. “There were some mistakes here and there, but it’s great to have him in the lineup.
“It was definitely different,” Staal said of his first game back being a jaunt in the open air. “I jumped on the ice in warm ups; seeing pucks, seeing guys, everything was kind of flying around. I knew if I was seeing that, everyone else was too. I thought because of the enormity of the event I could squeeze in there and do my thing, take some hits, and go from there.”