2012 NHL Winter Classic: Marc Staal "Felt Good" In Season Debut
There are a plethora of story lines that a writer can choose to address from the 2012 NHL Winter Classic. The snow, the atmosphere, the New York Rangers' comeback, the officiating the Henrik Lundqvist penalty shot save.
But despite everything going on, one thing stood out for the Rangers: The return of Marc Staal.
The Rangers' top defenseman had missed the entire season, until the Winter Classic. John Tortorella spoke at a press conference at 12:45 to announce Staal's return, and said he was putting Staal on the third defensive pairing. He did just that, and despite playing just 13 minutes in the game, Staal was still in good spirits after the game.
"I think I'm grounded," Staal said when asked what his emotions were like after the game. "It was more just getting through the first one. I felt good, there were no issues and I am happy about that."
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"We have been in constant contact with Dr. Cantu and the medical staff and I had a long conversation with him yesterday and he said that if you can hit tomorrow then you can hit five days from now it doesn't make a difference," Staal said of the process leading up to his Winter Classic season debut. "He said if I was physically and mentally ready to play the game then he would have no problem with me jumping in. I thought about it for a few hours, I think once I made the decision to get in it was easier to just focus on the game and focus on what to do and just let the nerves calm down."
Staal admitted that he didn't even expect to play in the event back when he first realized he would miss some time with a concussion.
"To be honest, I wrote it off for a long time so that when the day came and I wasn't playing it wouldn't bother me as much," he said. "Obviously the stage was big I think. I thought everyone was in a different boat. No one was used to the style of the game since it was outside. I kind of eased my way into it and it was good."
The biggest question surrounding Staal was how he felt after the game. Even though Staal only played for 13 minutes he saw some time during the Rangers' penalty kill late in the third period with the game on the line. Like I said when the Rangers announced he would be playing, an unconditioned Marc Staal is still better than a healthy Jeff Woywitka.
"I feel good," Staal said of his status after the game. "There's no problems. I didn't play a whole lot, but that was the plan we talked about it last night. I made some mistakes out there but I'll try to get better ... I didn't play all that much. From shift to shift I didn't run out of gas fast, I felt pretty good. "
Aside from Staal playing his first game of the season, this was also a once in a lifetime event. Something that Staal recognized and appreciated once all was said and done.
"It was different," Staal said. "I jumped onto the ice in warmups and everything was kind of flying around. But I knew if I was seeing that everyone else was too. I thought with the enormity of the event I could just kind of squeeze in there and kind of do my thing and take some hits and go from there."
The Rangers players were happy to see Staal back as well, which isn't surprising considering how much of a steadying factor he has been for the Rangers since he entered the league.
"I thought he was really good. he has a presence about him when he's out there. He's got a big body and a big reach, he's tough to get around," Ryan McDonagh said of Staal's play. "He's so good with the puck and he's smart positionally. I mean, he's an All-Star. It's no coincidence that he steps up in a big game for us here. He played some crucial minutes. He was huge for us in that penalty kill with five minutes left in the third."
Henrik Lundqvist was also singing Staal's praise, which isn't surprising, since Staal coming back probably effects him the most out of any other player on the team.
"I was impressed by the ice, but I was almost more impressed by Staal coming back, Lundqvist said. "I actually didn't know he was going to play the game. When I saw him out there, I was shocked.Obviously we told everybody he was not going to play, and he did an amazing job. It's not easy to come in here and play your first game in over ten months, [it was] outstanding.The confidence he will bring through our group, it's going to be big."
For the Rangers, getting Staal back couldn't have come at a better time. And while the defenseman didn't play a huge role in the Rangers' Winter Classic win, his presence was immense.
John Tortorella trusts Marc Staal, and that will play a huge factor as this season wears on. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh will no longer need to carry the load on their own, Michael Del Zotto won't be leaned on for as many minutes on the penalty kill and the Rangers' defense, in general, will be much, much better.
But that's all a long way away. For now, the Rangers need to be happy that Staal played, that he played well and that he felt good after the game.
That, and the fact that he contributed to the biggest win of the year, and helped the Rangers open up a four-point lead on the Philadelphia Flyers for first place.