After the long, challenging grind of another NHL season, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal is embracing these playoffs more than most.
Last spring, Staal was sidelined for all but one of the dozen Rangers postseason games after a frightening incident in March that left him bloodied, broken and temporarily blind in his right eye.
"It put a lot in perspective," said Staal, who on Thursday skated in his first playoff game since last May. "You appreciate health. I think the competition is what you miss, especially in the playoffs. During the season, if it's a bad game, you just kind of think, 'I'm playing, so it's a good day.' "
Staal's career, which had been undercut by concussions, took a dangerous detour on March 5, 2013, at Madison Square Garden. A slap shot by the Flyers' Kimmo Timonen deflected off a stick and struck Staal in the face, fracturing an orbital bone and tearing the retina in his eye. He screamed, flung away his gloves and stick, fell and covered his face.
"When I hit the ice," Staal recalled, "I knew it was bad."
Two months of healing, medication, testing and some practices seemed like enough; Staal ached to play. He returned, wearing a visor, for Game 3 of the Rangers' first-round series against Washington on May 6 and played 17:17.
But his depth perception and the signals to his brain, he said, weren't right. He was unable to react to the speed of the puck, the blur of bodies and the lights. It was risky to be on the ice. The next day, Staal -- dizzy and with a pounding headache -- decided to shut it down, saying he couldn't help the team.
It was his last playoff game until Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series against the Flyers on Thursday night, when he played 19:04 and assisted on Mats Zuccarello's tying goal in the first period of the 4-1 win.
"You go through the whole grind of the season to get a chance at this," Staal said. "Last year, I thought I was finally getting back [after a concussion] and then that happens, and you're sitting there watching the playoffs again. Now it's another opportunity to get back to it. You really appreciate it."
It wasn't until last July that he was comfortable skating with his brothers at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and was ready to resume his career at age 26.
The regular season was eventful: Staal returned to his rugged style, averaged 20:31 of ice time in 72 games and collected 14 points. He was invited to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp and became a first-time dad with the birth of daughter Anna Veralyn on Feb. 4. Things are back on track.
Sunday will be the 45th playoff game in seven seasons for Staal, and as expected, the battle level in this series has been high.
"They play hard, they play physical. It's not something we're not used to," Staal said. "It's something we expect."
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi pile up the minutes against opponents' first lines, "but Marc is a great defender," coach Alain Vigneault said. "He's played against top players with [Anton] Stralman. We've got two D-pairs who can pretty much play against anybody."
Just being able to lace up the skates for the intensity of April again is a bonus.
"Watching the team lose last year was just painful," Staal said. "It's great to be involved in the ups and downs of a series; you regroup and just go at it again. You either go on a great run or it doesn't go well and it's over."
Teammates agree that Staal has rebounded and that he undoubtedly is grateful.
"The way he's playing, the way he's looking, the way he is in the locker room, that hasn't changed," Henrik Lundqvist said. "But I bet an experience like that changed the way you feel about the game -- in a good way, too."