Following the Rangers crucial 4-3 win over the Capitals Monday night in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, head coach John Tortorella explained that the return of veteran defenseman Marc Staal to the lineup after a two-month injury absence bolstered the team even before the team took to the ice at Madison Square Garden.
"Even before you step on the ice, it really helps the room (knowing Staal will play)," explained Tortorella. "He's so well respected in the room, and this is two major injuries that he's come back from. He's so well liked. He helps the room."
The fact that Staal then went out and played on the second defense pair with Anton Stralman, logging 17:17 of quality ice-time, certainly did not hurt either as the Rangers not only received an emotional lift from Staal's return from a serious eye injury, but an on-ice boost, as well.
"He made some really big plays at key times," Tortorella said of Staal.
It had been touch and go the past week or so as to when and whether Staal could return to the lineup---with the Rangers alternate captain explaining that he needed to come to grips with playing with a blurry right eye, not an easy thing to find comfort in as a defenseman playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But with the Rangers down 2-0 in the series and playing a must-win Game Three on home ice, Staal made the decision to give it a go. He drew cheers during warmups, and then a huge ovation before the national anthem when his image was displayed on GardenVision, and finally a throaty roar when introduced in the Blueshirts starting lineup.
"I thought I would be more nervous than I was," explained Staal, who was playing at an All Star level when struck in the right eye by a puck on March 5th at The Garden in a game against the Flyers. "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 the game situations."
Staal absorbed a hard clean check from Washington's Troy Brouwer in the first period, but otherwise seemed perfectly at ease in his return to game action, while wearing a new shield to protect his eyes.
His teammates could not have been any more thrilled that Staal was back in the lineup.
"It's a huge boost, he wears the A for a reason," center Derek Stepan said after the game Monday. "He's got a demeanor about him that he carries which guys just love. Everyone adores Marc, and I know that's kind of cheesy when I say it, but it's just the way it is. He's a huge part of our team."
Added fellow defenseman Ryan McDonagh, "He's just a cornerstone on the backend for us, plays a lot of tough minutes abd he gives us a lot more depth on the blueline. I thought he was nervous---he rode with me to the game---but that's to be expected in a big situation, but he's the assistant captain and I thought he stepped up and played a tremendous game."
Steve Eminger, who had played well in the first two games of this series, was scratched in favor of Staal in Game Three.