Marc Staal remembers the feeling of helplessness watching his teammates compete for hockey’s ultimate prize and being unable to contribute.
One year later, he has that opportunity.
“It’s one thing to watch the games in the regular season, it’s another to watch in the playoffs and know you can’t do anything to help,” Staal said after the Rangers practice Wednesday at their Greenburgh, N.Y., training facility in preparation for Thursday night’s Game 1 of their Metropolitan Division semifinal series against the Flyers at the Garden.
“You want to be there competing with everyone. Obviously I’m thrilled to have that chance again to compete for the Stanley Cup.”
Staal’s 2013 season essentially ended when he was struck above the right eye by a Kimmo Timonen slapshot in the third period of the Rangers’ 4-2 win over the Flyers on March 5, 2013.
He returned for the Rangers 4-3 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Capitals, but did not play another game after that due to a reoccurrence of symptoms from the injury.
“I don’t like to look back too much on the past, but you [remember] the feeling of sitting there watching, and you’d rather be on the ice,” Staal said. “To be able to play in a playoff game; it’s so much fun. You play so long just to get a chance at it. We did it again, and it’s an exciting time.”
Regardless of the opponent, it would be exhilarating to be one of the 16 teams alive for the Stanley Cup. The Rangers go head-to-head with their Turnpike rivals in a playoff series for the first time since the Flyers' 4-1 series win in 1997 Eastern Conference final. The Flyers have won six of the 10 playoff matchups all-time, with the last Rangers series win occurring in the 1986 Patrick Division semifinals, 3-2.
The teams split the regular season series, 2-2-0.
Outside of Chris Kreider’s broken hand, which is expected to cause him to miss the series, the Rangers are essentially healthy. Contrast that to the Flyers, who will not have goaltender Steve Mason for Game 1 and possibly Sunday’s Game 2.
Mason was run over by former Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald and Pittsburgh forward Jayson Megna in the second period of the Flyers’ 4-3 overtime win over the Penguins Saturday afternoon. He did not practice with the team Wednesday, and head coach Craig Berube told a Philadelphia sports talk radio station he did not believe it would be wise to dress Mason as a backup to Ray Emery. Instead, it is believed rookie Cal Heeter will be the backup.
Mason compiled a 33-18-7 mark in 61 games this season, with a 2.50 goals against average and a .917 save percentage. Emery was 9-12-2 in 28 games with a 2.96 GAA and .903 save percentage. Heeter allowed five goals on 38 shots in the one game he played this season.
According to Rick Nash, there isn’t much different between the two outside of Mason being a right-handed catching goaltender and Emery a lefty.
“Just that they’re different [catching] hand goalies,” Nash said. “You have to pick different spots to shoot. But I said earlier they’re great goalies. I played against Emery since I was 16, and [played] with [Mason] for a few years [in Columbus]. So we’re going to have to outwork them if we want to score.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.