Rangers' Marc Staal cleared for contact

NEW YORK -- With the Winter Classic one week away, injured New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal has cleared another significant hurdle in his long-awaited return from post-concussion symptoms.

The 24-year-old, who has yet to play a game this season because of lingering effects stemming from a concussion suffered last February, was cleared for contact Monday for the first time during his recovery process.

Staal participated in battle drills and took some hits from teammates during the Rangers' morning skate at Madison Square Garden.

He was given the green light by team medical staff and specialist Dr.
Robert Cantu after coming through last week's rigorous week of practice and two-day holiday break feeling well.

"Today I felt fully confident going on the ice and taking some hits. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that that wasn't the right thing to do with the way I was feeling," Staal said.

Staal was encouraged that, after being jostled by teammates, he felt fine.

"I took a few bumps, my head bounced off the glass a couple times, things like that, not necessarily very hard," Staal said. "You wait to see how you feel after that. I wasn't planning on laying on the ice, out cold, but it was good just to start pushing guys and getting that type of conditioning into your body. "

Staal's overall conditioning remains as the last barrier to his return.

Although it is possible he could play against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Winter Classic, it does not appear likely.

Staal, who sustained the devastating head injury last season on a hit delivered by older brother Eric Staal, said he needs some work to get back into game shape. After a lengthy layoff, he feels a step behind when pushing and shoving or battling down low.

"I still need some more work. I don't feel as if I'm ready to play 25 minutes a night like I was last year," Staal said. "I feel a lot stronger on the ice. It's starting to come but nowhere it needs to be yet."

"Like everyone says, you can work out all summer as hard as you want.
As soon as you get into a corner and start pushing and shoving and hitting, it just drains you."

Whenever he returns, it will be a huge coup for the Rangers'
injury-ravaged back end. In addition to Staal, the Rangers are without Michael Sauer (concussion), Steve Eminger (shoulder) and Jeff Woywitka (foot).

The Rangers entered Monday night's game against the Islanders tied atop the Atlantic division with Philadelphia and riding a four-game winning streak.

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPNNewYork.com.