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New York Rangers' Marc Staal (18) is congratulated by teammates after scoring the game winning goal against the Washington Capitalsin overtime during Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final playoff hockey series in New York, May 7, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)
New York Rangers' Marc Staal (18) is congratulated by teammates after scoring the game winning goal against the Washington Capitalsin overtime during Game 5 of their NHL Eastern Conference semi-final playoff hockey series in New York, May 7, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

Marc Staal's long road back <br>to being a playoff hero</br> Add to ...

He missed the first 36 games of the season with a concussion – one suffered at the hands of his brother, Eric – and even when he returned to the lineup, he hardly looked himself.

It's been a tough season for New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal, in many ways, but Monday night was one sure sign that he is finally getting back to normal.

He picked up an assist on the Rangers first goal to make the game 1-0, helped break up a 1-on-3 play with terrific defensive positioning and then was the overtime hero just 1:35 into the extra frame when he put a long power play marker past Washington Capitals rookie Braden Holtby.

Staal's game winner was his second goal and fifth point through 12 playoff games, equalling the number of goals and points he had all season.

He also played more than 24 minutes, becoming once again the type of workhorse coach John Tortorella used to rely on so often in the past.

“I’m certainly feeling better and better,” Staal told reporters after the game. “As the year has gone on, I’ve felt better and better. Playoffs are a lot of fun and I’m having fun with it.”

That's one of the things that doesn't get talked about often enough with head injuries: They affect players even when they return to the lineup, something we saw in Toronto all season with James Reimer, Matt Lombardi, John-Michael Liles and Colby Armstrong.

All four members of the Leafs struggled to come back from concussions, often playing fewer minutes and at a diminished capacity than they had in previous months or seasons.

Sidney Crosby, in other words, is not the norm.

With Staal, one doesn't have to look much past his ice time to see how his progression from 12th overall pick in 2005 to blueline stud was halted by his head injury.

He went from 18:48 minutes a game in his rookie season to 21:08, 23:08 and 25:44 in each subsequent one, with that final number last season putting him fourth in the league in ice time.

This year, however, marked a big step back, with Staal averaging just 19:54 on the season as Tortorella worked him in slowly on the third pairing and in limited minutes beginning with his first game back at the Winter Classic.

That hesitation to play him has been gone almost entirely in these playoffs, with the top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh carrying that load but Staal right behind them with more than 25 minutes played a game (including a 50-minute effort in last week's triple overtime game).

As far as No. 3 defencemen go, the 25-year-old from Thunder Bay may be the best in the league, when healthy.

Quite an addition to make to what was already a top team.



<h5 style='border-top: #000 1px solid; border-bottom: #000 1px dotted; font:14px Georgia,serif; font-weight: normal; width: 460px; padding: 5px 0; margin: 20px 0 0'>Marc Staal's ice time</h5><p style='font:12px Verdana,sans-serif; width: 460px; margin: 5px 0 0 0; line-height: 1.4em;'>Rangers defenceman averaged 17:17 in January, 19:51 in February and 21:15 in March before getting 23+ minutes a night in the playoffs*</p><iframe src='http://www.theglobeandmail.com/static/test/charts/google/google_iframe_04.html?id=000&type=line&ssid=0Ar3M_smeSBJsdFBZanlXWWFKUmpnTWRBby1PVFVqM0E&bm=55&lm=70&w=460&h=300' scrolling='no' frameborder='no' width='460' height='300' style='border-bottom: 1px dotted #000; margin: 20px 0 0' ></iframe><p style='text-align:right; font: 10px Arial; color: #666; margin: 3px 0 20px 0;'> *- minus 49:57 in Game 3's triple overtime</p>


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