The Rangers will go with the same lineup in Nashville on Saturday afternoon that they used in Tuesday’s resounding 4-1 victory over the Lightning at the Garden that marked the team’s most impressive performance of the year.
That means Ryan Lindgren in uniform.
That means Marc Staal in street clothes.
“When I get my next opportunity, I’ll have to make the most of it,” said Staal, who will watch while Brady Skjei, Libor Hajek and Lindgren skate on the defense’s left side. “I want to be in the lineup and I want to play.”
Staal was a healthy scratch Tuesday for the first time in his career, and he was hardly thrilled by the manner in which it was effected. The 32-year-old, 13-year veteran received neither advance notice nor advance warning before informed of the decision by David Quinn in a brief meeting following Tuesday’s morning skate.
“Obviously I was upset and pretty frustrated,” Staal said. “There weren’t a lot of talks [about what I needed to improve] and that’s why I was a little upset and frustrated by it. I was caught off guard that way.
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“I think, internally, what it always comes down to is obviously [there is] a reason why they decided to take me out. So, just don’t give them that reason.”
I’m not looking too much at the big picture. I’m just going to take that responsibility on myself and play the way I know I can so they can’t take me out again.”
Quinn, who does not owe the alternate captain a lineup spot but probably did owe him a forewarning, met with Staal before Friday’s practice.
“We talked at length,” said the coach. “He understands what he needs to do to get back in. He’s a guy who I really think will elevate his game to where he’s going to be [in the lineup] night in and night out, or at least I hope so. If he does what I know he’s capable of, he’ll be in the lineup. We need him. … We need him.
“He’s smart. When he’s playing well, he’s playing with an edge to his game. He’s a strong defender; he’s got good gaps; he’s a good penalty killer. And again, he’s a guy who has been around for a long time. He’s as likeable a guy as there is; there’s a presence about him. Those are things that we need.”
“We want to win hockey games,” Quinn said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.”
The Rangers may boast about the number of 22-and-unders in their lineup, but honestly, no one expects the team to thrive with a horde of kids on the blue line. Developing players and winning games are not mutually exclusive objectives. There is a spot for Staal, who had struggled after opening with a pair of pretty good ones, but it is not reserved. He will have to earn it.
But so, too, will Hajek and so, too, will Lindgren and so, too, will Skjei, scratched three times last year and whose game has picked up the past week following a worryingly slow start.
“I can see it in his face,” Quinn said of Skjei. “He wants to do so well so badly sometimes that’s his biggest problem.
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“One of the things you see when he’s playing well is the confidence in his look. And the gaps. When he gets to a puck, he’s decisive.”
Skjei earned all-rookie honors in 2016-17. He has been trying to duplicate that success since. It hasn’t been easy. Being a young defenseman in the NHL is not easy, either. Progression is not necessarily linear.
“I had confidence that entire [rookie] season, and whatever I had in my game then, I still have now,” Skjei told The Post. “I was used a little bit differently then — I was on the power play, I think I was counted on for offense, and that’s changed a bit.
“I want to be more consistent. I don’t want to have the dips and valleys. I didn’t have the start I wanted, but I think the last four games have been a lot better. When I’m decisive and assertive, that’s my game. I’ve got to have that mindset.”
The 25-year-old Skjei is fifth in team seniority, eclipsed by only Henrik Lundqvist, Staal, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast. Though Quinn did not necessarily intend to send the team a message by scratching Staal, it certainly caught Skjei’s attention.
“It was tough. There was a different feeling in the locker room,” he said. “Marc is a guy everyone looks up to and is a big part of the team. And of course he handled it professionally.
“You know that kind of thing is a part of professional sports, but it was a little bit of a shock.”
Unfortunately, to Staal, as well.
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