By Sean Hartnett
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At the conclusion of the 2017 playoffs, the play of Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal had veered toward the wrong end of spectrum.
The battled-tested 30-year-old had often been on the ice for critical goals against in late-game situations against Montreal Canadiens in the first round and against the Ottawa Senators in what proved to be the Blueshirts' final games of the season.
It was clear that the Rangers' offseason plan would include a buyout of a veteran defenseman to open cap room to facilitate a run at top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. That veteran turned out to be Dan Girardi and the Blueshirts were able to land Shattenkirk on a risk-free, four-year contract at $6.65 million in annual-average value.
Since the 2007-08 season, Staal and Girardi served as minute-devouring rearguards and were leaned on heavily in back-to-back deep playoff runs in 2014 and '15. While Girardi's tenure with the Rangers ended this past summer, Staal was handed a second life.
Given the hard miles and succession of injuries Staal has logged for 10 seasons, all in New York, it was unclear which version would show up this season. Injuries can play havoc with a defenseman's performances, particularly when most of them gut through ailments to remain in the lineup for the most paramount of playoff games.
Through 37 games this season, Staal has rekindled the trademark reliability and poise that had become synonymous with his name for the bulk of the combined 830 regular season and playoff games in which he has dressed.
Lately, Staal has pushed his play to the right end of the aforementioned spectrum. It was readily apparent throughout Wednesday's 1-0 shootout victory over Washington. Staal provided a vintage performance across 19:30 minutes of ice time, mostly matched up against the Capitals second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuztensov, and T.J. Oshie. Staal also played a trustworthy 1:41 of the Rangers' two successful penalty kills.
"Staal is an unbelievable player," Rangers center Kevin Hayes told WFAN.com following the win. "There's a reason why he makes the money he does and there's a reason why he's played over 700 games in this league. A lot of fans and media kind of pushed stuff towards his way that's very undeserved. He's about as consistent as you can get. You know what you're going to get from him every single night as a club.
"As a professional hockey player, the most important message I was told was to be consistent and let your coaches, your fans and your teammates know what you're going to give every night and what they're going to expect. I think Staalsie is a true professional that way," Hayes added.
In a scaled-back role on the third pairing, Staal is no longer the 20-plus minute player he was during his heyday. His 17:59 average ranks fifth among Rangers blue liners and is the lowest of his career to date. While his partners have varied, Staal has served as a steady compliment to whoever lines up next to him. On Wednesday, Brady Skjei was the beneficiary of Staal's poised influence.
"I thought Marc was awesome tonight," Skjei said. "I think he's been really good all year. He's got a really good stick, he still moves really well, and I thought he made my job really easy tonight. I think he has been playing this whole year very consistent and very strong."
Head coach Alain Vigneault's decision to shuffle his lineup and move Skjei to the third pairing provoked surprise among a portion of the Rangers fan base. The regular second pairing of Skjei and Shattenkirk had been working out well for the majority of the season. Vigneault explained his reasoning for the changes following Wednesday's morning skate.
"In our last game we had some good moments, but I felt like we needed to be a little more consistent," he said. "After a three-day break where we haven't practiced, we'll catch everyone's attention. It'll be good communication between new linemates and new 'D' pairs and should be good to go."
As a whole, the Rangers excelled at completing high-percentage plays against the Capitals. They were quicker and crisper with their puck movement than they were last time out prior to the Christmas break, a 3-2 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Marc has been playing some good hockey for us," Vigneault said. "Again, tonight, against a real skilled team he was able to not only give us his consistent defensive game, but with the puck he's been making some good outlet passes. And tonight, one of the reasons I thought we played a quicker game was our defense put the puck in the hands of our forwards quicker and had a good game.
"I'm hoping that we are going to continue to play that way," he continued. "A big part of tonight if you want to talk about our defensive game was more playing with the puck. Playing with the puck quick, making the right decisions, and you can create some great looks offensively like I thought we did."
Staal's ability to win one-on-one battles with his smarts and long reach were key to the Rangers reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 and 2015, as well as in 2014 when the Blueshirts went one step further by advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
He's no spring chicken and the brutal right eye injury suffered in 2013 and the multiple concussions have played a part in interrupting a career that started out with incredible promise and high expectations. For the most part, Staal has met expectations in a tough man's game where serious injuries are not to be leaned on as a crutch.
Through it all, Staal has returned to being Mr. Dependable -- and that's impressive given the injuries, hardship and tough miles he's logged. Perhaps, it would be unfair to gauge the modern day Staal against his peak years, but he's found a way of to provide quality minutes at an age when many defensemen tend to start to fall off.
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