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Rangers defenseman Marc Staal itches to return to lineup

Rangers defenseman Marc Staal skates against the Boston

Rangers defenseman Marc Staal skates against the Boston Bruins during the third period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

After Marc Staal practiced with the Rangers on Thanksgiving Day, coach David Quinn said he was eager for the 32-year-old defenseman to return to the lineup.

“I’m itching to get him back,’’ Quinn said.

It was the first time Staal had skated with the team since undergoing surgery Nov. 8 to address an infection in his right ankle.

Staal has the same itch. He’d like to be back this week.

“I feel good,’’ he said Thursday. “I’ve got to talk to the doctors and [Rangers athletic trainer Jim Ramsay] and everyone, but by next week, I’m assuming if everything goes well, I should be good to go.’’

Staal described in detail his injury and the subsequent surgery. He said that about three weeks before the surgery, he blocked a shot and suffered a small cut on the inside of his ankle. Nothing big, nothing unusual, he said. Cuts like that happen all the time; it’s part of the job.

And yes, he played in some pain for the next couple of weeks, but again, nothing worse than he plays through all the time.

He was scratched for three games during that period but returned to the lineup Nov. 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes, playing against his brother Jared. He played 16:56 that night, took a penalty, blocked a couple of shots — none with the ankle in question — and even ended up plus-1 for the game.

After flying home with the team, he woke up barely able to walk. When the swelling in the ankle “got out of control’’ during the day, the Rangers opted for surgery that would allow doctors to put antibiotics directly into the wound.

“We have a great team of doctors here, and they weren’t incredibly concerned,’’ Staal said. “But the safest play was to open it up and make sure [the infection] was gone, because the way it went from, like 6 a.m., with me barely walking on it, to like 4 o’clock [p.m.] . . . it was like only getting bigger and more painful. So they needed to clean it out as quick as possible.’’

Quinn wouldn’t — or couldn’t — say on Thursday who might come out of the lineup to make room for Staal, saying only, “It’s a nice problem to have: seven ‘D’ that you feel good about, that can play.’’

Staal has been a whipping boy for Rangers fans on Twitter for at least a couple of years and especially this season. While his traditional statistics (one goal, one assist, plus-2 defensive rating, eight penalty minutes in 11 games) are fine, his advanced stats — things like Chances For, Chances Against and Corsi — are, in a word, bad. And fans see his salary (an average annual value of $5.7 million) as weighing the team down.

But Quinn sees something else in Staal, the second-longest-tenured Ranger behind goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Staal is the tallest Ranger at 6-4, an alternate captain, a respected elder statesman and a true stay-at-home, crease-clearing defenseman who helped youngsters such as Neal Pionk and Tony DeAngelo have success in the last couple of years.

“He’s a guy that brings an awful lot to the table,’’ Quinn said. “When you put a team together, you can’t put all the same types of players together. He’s a guy with a lot of experience. He’s got size. When he’s playing well, he defends well. He does a lot of good things for us.’’

  

More starts for Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist played his 1,000th game for the Rangers (regular season and playoffs combined) on Wednesday against Carolina and took over fifth place on the all-time list when he earned his 455th victory Monday against Minnesota.

He started six of seven games, including the 1,001st of his career, Friday in Boston against the Bruins. Alexandar Georgiev got the start and the shutout against the Devils on Saturday.

At the beginning of training camp, both team president John Davidson and coach David Quinn said Lundqvist would play fewer games this season than he usually does in an effort to keep him fresh for the second half. But in recent weeks, Quinn has talked of wanting to get Lundqvist into a rhythm, and the 37-year-old Swede seems to be in one now. He has gone 3-1-1 in his last five starts, allowing 12 goals (2.38 per game), and putting up a .929 save percentage.

Entering Saturday, Lundqvist had started 15 of the Rangers’ 24 games, which puts him on pace to end up with 51 for the season. But does starting six of seven suggest the Rangers have adjusted their pre-camp plan for Lundqvist? Are they now going to ride him for long stretches, as they’ve always done in the past?

“He’s gonna play more than Georgie as of now,’’ Quinn said. “Relative to past years, this is a manageable number of games. And we’re going to keep it that way.’’  

  

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