PITTSBURGH — The Rangers have amassed the best record in the NHL through 80 games by mixing and matching on defense behind the redoubtable Dan Girardi-Ryan McDonagh first pair that is to this regular-season conference champions what the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg tandem was to the 2011 Stanley Cup winning Bruins and the Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook unit was to the 2010 Cup champion Blackhawks.
But in order to achieve ultimate success in the playoffs, the Rangers, who face the Penguins tonight before Saturday’s finale at Madison Square Garden against the Capitals, will need a strong, reliable second pair on which to lean. Girardi and McDonagh can’t play 30 minutes a night into the middle of June, no matter how much they’re willing.
PRIME TIME: “Right now, I do feel that my game is coming,” says defenseman Marc Staal, whom the Rangers are counting on to continue his stellar play with the NHL playoffs due to start next week.
And for the last four games following last Tuesday’s unprecedented third-period benching in Minnesota, Marc Staal has provided necessary strength in that assignment skating with either Anton Stralman or Michael Del Zotto.
This has represented the closest Staal has come to resembling the first-pair, matchup force he was before sustaining the concussion Feb. 22, 2011, in Carolina that sidetracked the 2011 All-Star Game participant beyond sidelining him for this season’s first 36 games.
And it is likely no coincidence the turnabout from inconsistent performances marked by indecisiveness to Staal’s recent assertiveness with and without the puck has come in the wake of a meeting between the alternate captain and John Tortorella after the coach gave him just 3:09 of third-period ice while nailing him to the bench for the final 10:28 of the 3-2 victory over the Wild.
“That [benching] is something no one ever wants to go through,” Staal told The Post following Tuesday’s 5-3 victory in Philadelphia that clinched first seed in the East. “I had a talk with Torts afterward where we aired some stuff out.
“It was a good, honest conversation. Since that game, I’ve been concentrating on playing instead of thinking, of initiating instead of reacting, and to doing as much as I can on instinct.
“I’m getting as confident as I can be,” said the 25-year-old who led the Rangers in ice time last year at 25:44 and has gotten 19:44 in 44 games this year since joining the lineup for the Jan. 2 Winter Classic. “The team was having success when I came back so I didn’t want to disrupt anything.
“But right now I do feel that my game is coming.”
Staal has been more physical and more aggressive, more involved on the rush and in the offensive zone. It remains to be seen whether he’ll partner with Stralman, with whom he’s opened the last four games and who has also improved, or whether he’ll skate primarily with Del Zotto, who got only two shifts for 1:04 in the third against the Flyers after an ineffective second period.
The Rangers have made no official announcement, but Michael Sauer, concussed on Dec. 5 and who suffered a mid-January setback, is not coming back for the playoffs. The availability of Steve Eminger, who apparently suffered a setback of his own after skating lightly last week on a sprained ankle, is problematic.
Stu Bickel, averaging 10:28 minutes per game, is the sixth defenseman. The Rangers’ depth is going to be tested. The club will have a much easier time if Staal is able to make the grade.
Marc Staal, Rangers, Rangers, Dan Girardi-Ryan McDonagh, NHL, Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook, Anton Stralman, NHL playoffs, John Tortorella, Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg