Marc Staal's long road back not without its bumps

Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers

Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers celebrates his second perod goal against the Ottawa Senators. (April 26, 2012) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

There were difficult times, says the brother. But they are over now, their memories buried with the same kind of stoic determination that Marc Staal used to bury the puck in the back of the Washington Capitals' net two weeks ago.

No one has been rooting for Marc harder this postseason than his older brother Eric, the center for the Carolina Hurricanes. No one cheered louder when Marc scored the winning goal in overtime against the Capitals in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, or when Marc scored a key goal against the Devils in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. No one has been happier to see the defenseman play a key role in the Rangers' postseason run.

"I think," Eric said, "you're starting to see the old Marc now."

The old Marc is the player before the hit, the player before the headaches and scary ringing in the ears. The old Marc is the player who was having an All-Star season when he suffered a concussion after being checked by Eric in a game between the Rangers and Hurricanes on Feb. 22, 2011.

All Eric saw was a white shirt. He didn't know it was his brother along the boards with his head down. All he saw was a player from the other team. So he put his shoulder down and hit that opponent hard.

The blow knocked Marc off his skates, snapped his head back and sent him sprawling onto the ice face down. He missed three games with a knee injury suffered on the hit, and two more in March. He then returned to play 15 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs.

It wasn't until the summer that the problems really started. Every time Marc stepped onto the ice and started to exert himself, the headaches would begin. Sometimes they lasted four to five hours.

"All summer, I knew something was really wrong," Marc said earlier this week.

Until this point, the Staal family story had read like some fable invented by the NHL marketing department. Four Staal brothers had grown up playing on a rink that their father, Henry, had constructed out of plywood on their sod farm in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Eric, Marc and Jordan, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, were first-round draft picks. Jared, the youngest, was a second-round pick and is in the Boston Bruins' farm system.

The boys had grown up playing hard and inevitably hitting each other a few times on the backyard rink. But nothing like this had ever happened.

"It's all behind us, but there were some difficult times," Eric said. "It was hard to watch him go through the process in the summer. I knew that he wasn't feeling right. We all knew."

Marc, who turned 25 in January, tried to rejoin the Rangers in training camp but couldn't. Concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu of Boston University shut him down for a month early in the season to give him time to recover.

Staal missed the first 36 games of the season, returning for the Winter Classic in Philadelphia on Jan. 2. At first, he was far from the player he had been. In February, Rangers coach John Tortorella publicly talked about his situation, noting that Staal was bothered that he no longer was relied upon as the team's shutdown defenseman.

"It was a tough start of the season for him, missing the games and then battling to come back to where he was," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said.

Marc talked frequently with all three of his brothers and parents and credits them for helping him get through his comeback. He wasn't the only Staal struggling, however.

After scoring 33 goals in 2010-11, Eric had only 24 this season, his lowest total since his rookie year. When asked if his brother's situation had something to do with his own, Eric did not think so. He said it was extremely hard to see what Marc went through but that he had come to terms with what happened.

"To be honest, I know I had something to do with the issues he had to end up dealing with, but I know it wasn't all my fault," Eric said. "There were a lot of decisions made after that that held him back."

Marc has said he wishes he hadn't come back and played as quickly as he did but now wants to focus on what is going right rather than what went wrong. He concedes that he felt a lot of pressure to get his game back on track but added that pressure can be a good thing.

"My season was full of ups and downs, but I was able to refocus before the playoffs," said Marc, who has played in all 19 playoff games and has three goals and three assists while averaging 25 minutes of ice time. "I really wanted to take advantage of being here."

Now he hopes the Rangers can find a way to win two more games and get to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. Both Jordan and Eric have been there and won one, so he said there is a little family pressure on him.

"My dad keeps reminding me I have to keep winning or he'll have nothing to do," he said. "Now that's real pressure."

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