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Marc Staal skates, close to making his return to Rangers

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) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- An undeniably essential piece of the Rangers family -- as well as their defensive structure -- is a step closer to returning.

Marc Staal, who was struck in the right eye by a deflected puck against the Flyers on March 5, said Tuesday that his vision has dramatically improved and he has started skating, wearing a visor. He said he hopes to be back "as soon as possible" but has no timetable.

In his first remarks to the media since the incident, when he fell to the ice bleeding and thrashing, Staal, the 26-year-old alternate captain and former All-Star, said the multiple facial fractures have healed and he was cleared by doctors to begin skating on Monday after off-ice workouts last week.

"It's definitely different," said Staal, who skated with injured defenseman Roman Hamrlik before the team practiced yesterday. "It's not 100 percent, so passing, shooting, things like that, just have to start clicking into place, [but] from where I was, to where I am now, is a huge difference. It could take three months to get it back or a year, so we just kind of go and see how it goes."

Returning to his career, which began with the Rangers when he was drafted 12th overall in the 2005 NHL draft and was sidetracked by a concussion in February 2011, was the furthest thing from his mind right after the accident.

"The first week was pretty scary," he said. "I don't think my wife slept the first four nights, wiping blood off my eye and face. She's been huge for me, as well as my parents and brothers. It's amazing how small the hockey world is, how many people reach out and wish you well."

He said wearing the visor is a necessary adjustment.

"When I start sweating and working hard, it bothers me a bit, but I don't foresee any problems," he said. " . . . When I was hit and on the ice, one of the things that went through my mind was, 'I should have been wearing a visor.' " If mandatory visors were "grandfathered in" by the NHL and NHPLA, he said, he'd vote for it.

The Rangers (19-16-4, 42 points), scrapping for a playoff berth with the next challenge a rematch with the Maple Leafs at the Garden Wednesday night, dearly miss his physical presence and savvy. And Staal, whose competitiveness is unquestionable, is prepared to play when his conditioning returns -- even if his vision is less than 100 percent.

"There are a lot of guys out there that play without perfect vision in one eye," Staal said. "It's just going to be one of those things where you're out there, letting your more powerful eye take over."

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