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SportsColumnistsSteve Zipay

Marc Staal practices, but still not ready to return after puck to eye

Marc Staal is assisted off the ice after

Marc Staal is assisted off the ice after being hit by a puck in the third period of a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden. (March 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

If there were any hockey justice, Marc Staal would be healthy and preparing even harder for the Rangers' first-round playoff series starting next week. But his "run of bad luck," as he puts it, has him on the sidelines.

With his right eye still blurry after being stuck with a deflected shot on March 5, the team's alternate captain has been traveling with his teammates, but was forced to watch from the press box last week in Florida and Carolina, with the view particularly difficult from a personal standpoint at PSC Arena in Raleigh, where his three brothers dressed for Carolina. A Staal quartet would have been memorable.

Now practicing with a visor, Staal wasn't on the ice Saturday at Madison Square Garden for the season finale against the Devils, and his valuable defensive presence in the playoffs is far from guaranteed. Last spring, in the 20-game run to the Eastern Conference Finals, he was often matched up against an opponents' top forward, and he chipped in three goals and six points.

"I knew it was going to take some time once I started [recovering]," Staal said on Friday. "I don't know how long that's going to be. I kind of come in everyday, go onto the ice, hope it gets better and go from there.:

His teammates, he said, "gave me more time to get back in. It was a great win [Thursday] night. It's more stressful to watch than play, so I'm excited for them . . . I think it would have been harder if I didn't go through what I went through last year."

That was when concussion symptoms, lingering long after a check from his brother Eric, forced him to miss the first 36 games. "It was the hardest thing to do, sit and watch, I'd never done it. It's not easier, but I know what it's like to come back from an injury now."

For his perseverance, Staal was nominated by New York writers for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which recognizes dedication to the game. "I hope he wins, I think he deserves it," said his father, Henry, who was in Raleigh. "He deals with things with a pretty positive attitude, he doesn't look back . . . Marc will keep going, he doesn't dwell on things. He doesn't hold a grudge, even with the concussion."

The brothers are competitive, but cheer for one another, said Henry Staal, who is thrilled to see his sons succeed, even if they sometimes don't do what he would like. "Of course I wanted them to wear them [visors]," he said, adding that it was their decision as pros. "Obviously, Marc didn't make the right one, looking back."

Defense rests

With all the signings and trades and transactions, the Rangers goaltending and defense is almost intact compared to last season's playoff run: Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron were the goaltenders; Defensemen Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Steve Eminger and Anton Stralman are still here. However, the absence of Marc Staal (injured) is notable.

The real changes have come upfront. Only six forwards remain from last season's playoffs: Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider and Brian Boyle (injured). Among the replacements, several have little or no playoff experience: Rick Nash (four games in 2008-09) and Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore have played none.

Goners from last season's playoff run to Eastern Conference finals: Marian Gaborik, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky (Columbus), Brandon Prust (Montreal), Ruslan Fedotenko (Philadelphia), John Mitchell (Colorado), Mike Rupp (Minnesota), Stu Bickel (AHL)

First playoffs as Rangers: Rick Nash, trade with Blue Jackets; Taylor Pyatt, free agent; Derick Brassard, trade with Blue Jackets John Moore, trade with Blue Jackets; Mats Zuccarello (injured last spring); Arron Asham, free agent; Darroll Powe, trade with Wild; Roman Hamrlik, waivers; Ryan Clowe (currently injured), trade with Sharks; Derek Dorsett (injured), trade with Blue Jackets

The envelope please . . .

Two Rangers (and an Islander) would be in my finalists for seven awards

VEZINA TROPHY, Best goalie: Antti Niemi, (San Jose); Henrik Lundqvist (Rangers) Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus)

SELKE, Best defensive forward: Jonathan Toews (Chicago), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit), Ryan Callahan (Rangers)

LADY BYNG, Sportsmanship: Martin St. Louis (Tampa), Patrice Bergeron, (Boston), Patrick Kane (Chicago)

HART, Most Valuable Player: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), John Tavares (Islanders), Jonathan Toews (Chicago)

CALDER, Top rookie: Jonathan Huberdeau, (Florida), Cory Conacher (Ottawa), Brendan Gallagher (Montreal)

NORRIS, Best defenseman: Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), Ryan Suter, (Minnesota), Zdeno Chara (Boston)

JACK ADAMS, Best coach: Paul MacLean (Ottawa), Randy Carlyle (Toronto), Joel Quenneville (Chicago)

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