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Marc Staal is dealing with neck issues, opening day status remains in doubt

Sep 30, 2011, 7:20 PM EDT

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Marc Staal skated for the first time since Sunday, as he spent 100 minutes on the ice with the AHL’s Connecticut Whale. It still seems unlikely that the New York Rangers’ most important defenseman will be ready for the team’s Oct. 7 season-opener against the Los Angeles, although his absence isn’t an absolute certainty just yet. (When Andrew Gross asked Staal about his status for that contest, he simply said “I don’t know.”)

Gross reports that Staal considers himself day-to-day for practices, let alone games. He might skate again on Saturday if he doesn’t experience headaches again, according to that report.

Staal underwent an MRI on Friday that revealed some pressure in his neck, although the exact diagnosis wasn’t revealed. Staal’s absence could solidify things for two lower-ranking Rangers defensemen: Michael del Zotto and Tim Erixon. Del Zotto experienced a serious drop-off in 2010-11 after a surprisingly potent rookie year in 09-10. (MDZ scored an impressive 37 points in 80 games, although that total was tarnished a bit by leaky defensive play, which could be seen most simply in his -20 rating.)

As important as Staal is to the Rangers’ blueline – He averaged a stunning 25:44 minutes per game during the last regular season – the team shouldn’t be too hasty to bring him back. His absence will put a lot of pressure on Brad Richards and their offense to score at a solid pace (not to mention even more of a burden on world-class goalie Henrik Lundqvist), but they need to take the long view with their 24-year-old defensive centerpiece.

We’ll keep you updated as Staal continues to make a hopeful if unlikely bid to play by the first meaningful game of the season.

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