Defenseman Marc Staal returned to the Rangers’ lineup Friday night after a 13-game absence, a stroke of fortuitous timing after coach David Quinn said rookie Libor Hajek likely will be out at least three weeks with a knee sprain.
Staal headlined a number of tweaks as the Rangers got set to take on the Canadiens at Madison Square Garden. Gregg McKegg, who missed six games with a lower-body injury, returned to the fourth line alongside Brett Howden and Brendan Smith. Alexandar Georgiev played his second straight game in goal, in part because Henrik Lundqvist was battling an illness (Quinn said Lundqvist was well enough to play if needed).
Staal had surgery on his right ankle on Nov. 8 and traveled with the Rangers to Columbus on Thursday before being held out of the game. Though he hasn’t contributed much in terms of point production in the last few seasons, the 32-year-old is a steady presence.
“I think he gives us such a different dimension with the makeup of our D,” Quinn said. “He’s a big guy, he’s got a lot of experience in this league. He has the ability to lean on people and that little bit of physical element to his game. He’s got the ability to get us out of our end when he’s sharp. We’re pretty young back there, so we certainly embrace getting a guy with his experience and his stature.”
Staal’s return wasn’t under the most ideal of circumstances. “Ideally, you’d like to give him more practice time, more time to get his feet under him, but it’s the National Hockey League,” Quinn said. “We don’t have time for that.”
Boo Nieves was assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack to make room for the two returnees. He played in four games with the Rangers.