Marc Staal returned from his concussion on Monday afternoon, which just so happened to be the 2012 NHL Winter Classic. And for Staal, who hasn't played all season thanks to that injury, it was a pleasant surprise that he had the opportunity to play in the NHL's fifth-annual outdoor showcase.
"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," Staal said following his team's 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park. "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."
It wasn't perfect, though. Staal didn't immediately return to his spot on the Rangers top defensive pairing, a gig that's been taken over by Dan Girardi and surprising youngster Ryan McDonagh. He only played 12:41 of total ice time, and head coach John Tortorella still thinks he needs to ease in his star defenseman.
"The game was pretty quick for him," Torts said. "He readily admitted early on, those first few shifts. There were some mistakes here and there, but it's great to have him in the lineup. We're gonna slowly get him about. There's some work to do.
"Even without a concussion, any player that misses camp, it's a struggle, so we have to be really cognizant of how we use him. We don't want to put him in a situation where he doesn't get his game back, but it'll be there. He's going to be a very important guy."
Staal agreed about the mistakes.
"I feel good. 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."
Even though it wasn't a perfect afternoon for Staal, just having him back on the bench and in the active lineup is a step up for the Rangers. McDonagh talked about that after the game.
"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. 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."
And that's where the Rangers need Staal the most. He's without a doubt their best defenseman, and with a guy like that, even if he's not at 100 percent of his normal production, he's still a better option than most. A better option than Jeff Woywitka, for example.
"I feel terrible about taking Jeff out," Tortorella said. "Leading up, you know he's in that lineup ready to play this type of game, right up to last night after the meal. I don't feel great about that but he was terrific when I talked to him. He understands when Marc Staal says yes to me, he's going to play."
Marc Staal played on Monday. He's back in the Rangers lineup, and as they expanded their lead in both the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division with their win over the rival Philadelphia Flyers, they're only going to be scarier as the season progresses.
For more on this year's Winter Classic, head over to SB Nation's Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter and Flyers blog Broad Street Hockey. For everything Winter Classic in the build-up to the game, head over to our NHL Winter Classic StoryStream.