BRANDON, Fla. - After missing 10 games with a concussion suffered against the Devils on Dec. 7, defenseman Marc Staal will return to the lineup when the Rangers face the Florida Panthers Tuesday night in the third game of this road trip.
"I talked to [Alain Vigneault] and said I wanted to play and he said I'm in," Staal said after a practice in which he was paired with rookie Conor Allen, who made his NHL debut Sunday. "[Missing time] is frustrating. You want to be out there helping the team win games. I'm excited to just get back out there and be a part of it on the ice again."
In a post-practice conversation, Vigneault said that Staal told him he "feels he's in good condition, so I told him if he's ready to go, we're going to play him."
Vigneault said he hadn't determined which other defensemen will dress for the 5 p.m. game, which will mark the midway point of the season. Anton Stralman, whose sore left wrist kept him out of Sunday's 4-3 win in Tampa, said he felt better Monday but that a game-time decision would be left to the coach.
If Stralman can play, two defensemen will have to sit, and judging by ice time and comments from Vigneault, Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk appear to be the leading candidates.
Staal, 26, was logging 20 minutes on ice per game in 30 games before his injury. He gives the Rangers (19-19-2) another left-side shutdown defenseman to play behind No. 1 defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who is all but assured of a spot on the U.S. Olympic team when the 25-man roster is announced after the Winter Classic Wednesday.
"With Marc in the lineup, it gives us a pretty good 1-2 punch as far as Ds who can play top-end opponents," Vigneault said. "Without Marc, Mac plays a lot of minutes, and five-on-five, we lose a little of his offensive potential."
Captain Ryan Callahan, one of the leaders of the American squad going to Sochi in February, practiced again in a non-contact jersey and could return from a left MCL sprain by next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, center Derek Stepan, who attended the U.S. orientation camp in Arlington, Va., in late August, considers himself on the bubble, but he stopped short of saying he deserves a spot on the roster.
"I'm not really sure," said Stepan, who was captain of the gold-medal U.S. team in the 2010 World Juniors. "I certainly hope I've put a pretty good foot forward. Even with struggles early on this year, I feel that I've competed hard. Regardless of the outcome, I'm pretty happy with the way I've started my career."