GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Coming off two more big road victories and one more major injury, the Rangers still are on their familiar even keel. It does not seem to matter who's in and who's out, especially if Marc Staal is in. The improving and maturing defenseman, who probably will be named an All-Star Tuesday, is perhaps the main reason the Rangers' outlook and play have been much healthier than their roster.
"He's a huge part of it. He's rock-solid back there," said captain Chris Drury, one of several veterans who have missed prolonged stretches. In fact, Drury had just finished his first practice with new linemate Kris Newbury, called up from Connecticut because Alex Frolov will have season-ending knee surgery. Newbury will be on the Garden ice Tuesday night when the Rangers play the similarly banged-up Canadiens.
"Since I was a little kid, I've always wanted to be on the ice as much as I can," he said. "You just start reacting and playing; that's when the game is fun. You try to be at your best when you have more responsibility. When you're counted on, it makes you better as a player."
Staal regularly is matched against the opponent's best forward. He kills penalties and is on the power play. What's more, the young man from Thunder Bay, Ontario, two days shy of his 24th birthday, is becoming a leader.
"He's a quiet kid. He's unassuming, but [being] a leader, sometimes it doesn't come from the lips, it comes from inside his chest cavity," coach John Tortorella said. "What he exemplifies on the ice, all the situations we put him in offensively and defensively, that's becoming a leader."
It wasn't all that long ago that he was only a prospect.
"Each year, he kind of grows and grows," Drury said. "He's stronger, more and more, with and without the puck. He's maturing physically and he's experienced. He's getting in a lot of situations, against a lot of great players, and he just seems to rise to the occasion."
What doesn't rise is his voice. In a quiet, even tone, Staal explained his progress this way: "It probably has a lot to do with experience. The more you play at this level, the more you learn. Your reaction time on certain plays gets better. And knowing the players you play with helps. A lot of us have been teammates for a long time. It's nice to go on the ice with those guys. That just builds your confidence, too."
Maybe the only time he made the Rangers worry all season was after the second period Saturday, when he appeared to limp toward the dressing room. He shrugged it off when he was asked about it Monday.
"Just some things fire up on you every now and then. They go away. I'm fine," he said. "Just a couple tough games against physical teams, you know?"