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Eric Staal could be an X-factor for the Rangers

Eric Staal of the New York Rangers

Eric Staal of the New York Rangers celebrates his first-period goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, March 27, 2016. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Give the Rangers credit for willing their way to a 4-2 victory over the Penguins on Saturday in Game 2 of a first-round playoff series.

So that’s 1-1 where it counts. But the hockey cognoscenti largely is in agreement that the better team — non-goalie division — is the Pittsburghers.

There were times early in Game 2 the Penguins looked like they might skate the Rangers out of the building, highlighted by a scary first power-play unit that essentially is a mini All-Star team.

None of which means the Rangers cannot win three of the next five games and advance. But to do so, contributions will be needed from every corner of the roster.

Here’s one man’s off-day nomination for an X-factor from whom little has been heard so far: Eric Staal.

He was acquired in a Feb. 28 trade after a long and meritorious career with the Hurricanes, a 31-year-old pro’s pro whose arrival confirmed the Rangers are all-in for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on their veteran core.

So far, though, the results have been . . . meh. Toiling mostly on the third line, Staal had three goals and three assists in 20 regular-season games as a Ranger and no points on four shots on goal in two playoff games.

This comes as no surprise given that Staal’s 39 points in the regular season were his fewest since he was a rookie in 2003-04. But it also would be no surprise if Staal comes up with a big moment or two.

One thing is clear: He will be on an emotional high when the series visits the Garden for Game 3 on Tuesday, part of his return to the playoffs after the ’Canes made it only once since winning the Cup in 2006 — and that was back in ’09.

Between Games 1 and 2, Staal looked back at the series opener and said: “Goose bumps right away, first spin around there before the game started — the crowd, the energy, the atmosphere. I missed that. It was a lot of fun and those are moments you want to have every single year.

“For me, it had been a while. It will be more fun at MSG for Game 3.”

Staal was a young star on those Cup-winning ’Canes, scoring a career-high 100 points in the regular season and 28 more in the playoffs. Now he is a role player, one with a smaller role than that of his younger brother Marc, who did fine work Saturday in carrying the depleted defense corps.

But veteran role players are important on the long march through spring. And Staal can fit that bill. It might help that unlike the many Rangers who have enjoyed long playoff runs lately, he mostly has observed them and his brother on TV.

Eric was happy for Marc. He would have been happier to be too busy to watch his games, having had a taste of his own earlier.

“It was honestly more and more frustrating every season because of that, to know what it is,” he said. “I’ve been there. I know the feeling and constantly missing can wear on you. It’s tough. It’s tough watching other guys and other teams and guys you know well and guys you compete against all season long getting to enjoy it and you’re watching.

“I’m glad I got this opportunity to join this group and now I want to make sure we make the most of it.”

The Rangers’ current streak of six playoff berths began in 2011, when Staal’s Hurricanes lost to the Lightning in the final game, which allowed the Rangers to sneak in. That one hurt even more than most.

“It’s a long season; it’s a grind,” he said. “When you do miss it on the last day, it’s tough and makes for a really long year. But it goes to show how tough it is to be in the playoffs. It’s a tough league.”

What is his favorite part of the playoffs? “I mean, it’s everything,” he said. “It’s the playoffs. Every seat is filled and everybody’s excited. Every moment matters. Not that it doesn’t in the regular season, but it’s a different feeling.

“It’s a different vibe and a different energy for everybody in the building, and everybody that’s watching. Those are moments you want to be a part of and you want to play and you want to be out there.

“So [those are] things I’ve missed and I’m excited to be back and hopefully making sure it’s a long while doing it.”

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