After the formal portion of practice had been completed Monday afternoon in Brandon, Florida, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault had a brief on-ice chat with defenseman Marc Staal and it was in that conversation that it was decided Staal would be returning to the team's lineup Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers after a ten-game absence due to a concussion.
"I had a talk there with Marc at the end of practice today and he said he was ready to go," Vigneault told reporters. "He's been working real hard for a couple of weeks, skated during the Christmas break, and he feels he's in good condition. So I told him if he feels good to go we're going to play him."
Staal, who missed the first 36 games of the 2011-12 season due to concussion reasons, suffered another concussion on December 7th against the New Jersey Devils. The team alternate captain said this concussion was not as severe as his previous one, and he also believes he managed it better because of his prior experience.
During practice on Monday Staal skated regularly with rookie Conor Allen, who played nearly 16 minutes in his NHL debut in Sunday's 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Vigneault was a bit coy and evasive when asked about his lineup for Tuesday and whether or not Allen factors into it.
"I liked what I saw yesterday," the head coach said of Allen, noting, in particular, how he was willing to take a hit in order to make a play to begin the Rangers transition out of their own end of the ice.
"With Marc coming back obviously someone has to come out of the lineup," added Vigneault. "And we feel (Anton) Stralman is close so we have some decisions to make."
Stralman took part in the full practice Monday despite missing Sunday's game with a sore left wrist/hand--an injury suffered in the first period of Friday's 3-2 loss in Washington. He has been wearing a brace on his hand/wrist off the ice, while taping them up when he is on the ice.
"We'll see about (Tuesday), hopefully it'll feel even better then," said Stralman after practice and before the team took a short flight down to South Florida. "Today was definitely a step forward."
Which defenseman, or defensemen, come out of the lineup Tuesday is pure speculation at this point since Vigneault did not provide any answers Monday. However John Moore did take Michael Del Zotto's spot on the second power play unit during practice, and after the workout assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson held separate on-ice conversations with Del Zotto and Justin Falk.
Staal's return will provide a big lift to the team's defense corps. As Vigneault pointed out after practice the Rangers have an outstanding one-two punch on the left side when Staal is healthy on one pairing and Ryan McDonagh is on another pair.
"That's 45 to 50 minutes a game taken up by those two good guys on the left side," noted the head coach.
In 30 games played this season Staal has averaged 20 minutes of ice time to go along with two goals and an assist. He will help solidify the Rangers penalty kill and five-on-five play, and will enhance McDonagh's ability to contribute even more. McDonagh is averaging nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game and leads all Rangers defensemen with six goals and 23 points. He ranks fourth overall on the team in points, and is tied for 11th among all NHL defensemen in points.
Vigneault also confirmed that Henrik Lundqvist will start once again in goal on Tuesday night. Lundqvist stopped 37 of 40 Lightning shots on Sunday, winning for the first time in regulation since December 5th in Buffalo.