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Marc Staal, stung by criticism, picks up level of his play

Philadelphia Flyers center Brayden Schenn checks New

Philadelphia Flyers center Brayden Schenn checks New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal against the boards in the second period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s been easy to take Marc Staal for granted. But that would be a mistake.

The 6-4 lefty has been a rugged, dependable pillar on the Rangers’ blueline since his arrival in the 2007-08 season. He has played in at least 77 regular-season games five times and 46 of 48 games in the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12. The only long absence was in 2012-13, when a serious eye injury sidelined him for all but 21 games.

So it should be no surprise that Staal, 29, is one of only four Rangers, along with Keith Yandle, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller, to have played in every game this season. He is averaging 19:42 on ice, third among Rangers defensemen. But the native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, admits he has been struggling and knows he needs to rebound.

He has only two goals and 11 assists, but offense has never been the keynote of his shutdown style. Staal, who will play his 600th game for the Rangers later this month, has 34 goals and 144 points in his career.

Playing with longtime partner Dan Girardi, who has been troubled with knee issues, Staal has been uncharacteristically inconsistent defensively — in his reads, using his stick more than his size, leaving players open in front, taking some avoidable penalties.

Not every game has been a Picasso, and because he signed a long-term deal that carries a $5.7-million annual salary-cap hit, which puts him about 20th in the NHL for defensemen, criticism has come from the fan base and the media.

On Saturday, after a subpar performance by Staal against the Kings the previous night, coach Alain Vigneault said publicly that he needs more from him in both zones.

Staal said that although it was warranted, the criticism stung.

“I certainly don’t enjoy it and it’s not something you want to have happen,” Staal said after playing a team-high 25:42, including 5:57 on the penalty kill, in Sunday night’s 3-1 victory over the Flyers. “Obviously I need to raise my level of play consistently, shift to shift, down the stretch here. I think it’s on me to respond. It’s a step . . . We are winning games, and that’s always a positive thing and easier to go through it, when you are going through a slump like this. I am just going to keep on working hard and try to get through it.”

In his postgame comments Sunday, Vigneault said: “He played hard. He was heavy. He did a great job against their top line. He did a real good job on the penalty kill. He made a couple of nice plays with the puck, and I think for him, this was a step in the right direction.”


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