NEW YORK -- If there was anything that rivaled the sound of a jubilant Madison Square Garden crowd as the buzzer sounded on a 4-3 Rangers win over the Capitals, it was the thunderous ovation that greeted defenseman Marc Staal on Monday night.
After missing two months with an injured right eye, Staal made a much-anticipated return to the lineup for Game 3. The 26-year-old blue-liner had not played since taking a puck to the right eye in a game against the Flyers on March 5.
It was an emotional night for Staal, who made a comeback from his second lengthy absence in as many years. Staal also missed almost half of last season with a concussion.
"The crowd was great," Staal said. "I got a big cheer and it was a pretty good feeling, too, to get back on the ice. I had chills the whole warm-up and [when] I stepped on the ice for the game. It was pretty special."
Staal's steadying presence on the blue line and solid leadership provided a major lift for the Rangers, entering the series down 2-0.
"It's a huge boost," said Derek Stepan of the alternate captain. "He wears the 'A' for a reason. He's got a demeanor about him that he carries that guys just love."
"Everybody really adores Marc," Stepan continued. "I know that's a cheesy way to say it, but that's the way it is. He's a great guy in the locker room and he's a huge part of our team now."
Paired with defenseman Anton Stralman, Staal played 17:17 over 21 shifts in his first game back. It wasn't much an ease-in for Staal, who was rocked along the end-boards by Washington's Troy Brouwer early in the game.
"Good way to start it, off, yeah," Staal said. "Was gonna happen sooner or later, so it was good to get one under the belt early, I guess."
Staal said his first game back was far from seamless; he's still trying to get back his pace and timing. Some plays provided new challenges as well -- he's been battling issues with blurry vision ever since the injury -- but insisted that it's nothing he "can't get used to."
Enthused by his return, coach John Tortorella didn't hesitate to throw him in right into the fire, awarding him top-four minutes right off the hop. He expects Staal's addition to be a vital one moving forward.
"He helps the room. He's so well-respected in the room and this is two major injuries that he has come back from," Tortorella said. "He's so well-liked and there are times when you can tell it's going to take a little bit to totally get back, but he made some really big plays at key times, too."
As promised, Staal did wear a visor in his return. He was not wearing one when he suffered the injury, but has since vowed to don the protective head gear. Carolina Hurricanes forwards Eric Staal and Jordan Staal began wearing visors as well, shortly after their brother's injury.