Alain Vigneault needed convincing to open the season with the Ryan McDonagh-Kevin Shattenkirk first pair on defense that seemed a natural to just about everyone other than the Blueshirts head coach.
Shattenkirk was too much of an offensive guy who merited offensive-zone starts and Vigneault relied too much on McDonagh for defensive-zone starts to feel comfortable giving that assignment to someone else.
But it didn’t seem as if the coach had another reasonable option at his disposal. After four periods of generally sloppy and sometimes disastrous play in the defensive zone, he created one. Starting with the second period of Saturday’s loss in Toronto, Vigneault shifted the left-handed McDonagh to the right side and moved Marc Staal up from the third pair to be the captain’s partner.
Hands, please, if you had Staal — stalwart skating with McDonagh in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over the Canadiens at the Garden, and likely the club’s best defenseman through the first three games — as the club’s first-pair shutdown guy.
“What?” Staal deadpanned after the Blueshirts’ first victory of 2017-18 following a pair of discouraging defeats. “You didn’t?”
Last season ended with Staal’s tenure on Broadway in jeopardy. There was the possibility of a buyout following a second half in which he struggled to keep up after returning from a midseason concussion. When the Rangers instead bought out Dan Girardi, chatter persisted into and throughout camp that Staal’s spot in the top six, if not on the roster, was in jeopardy.
“I got kind of sick of that kind of talk,” Staal told The Post. “I’m not denying that there was a reason for it with the way the season ended for me, but I came into camp determined to let my play do my talking for me.
“It was tough. Of course there are going to be questions with the way we lost in the playoffs. Obviously I needed to be better than the way I played, especially in the Ottawa series. But I never thought I was done.”
Staal is the second senior Ranger to Henrik Lundqvist, the alternate captain’s Broadway run having begun in 2007-08. When healthy, when physical, when able to keep it simple, he can be an extremely effective player.
“I approached this season a little bit differently,” he said. “I was a little more angry.”
On a night when Vigneault scratched 18-year-old center Filip Chytil, whom he had benched for the final 33 minutes, 3 seconds Saturday, and dressed seven defensemen for the fifth time in his five years behind the Rangers bench, McDonagh started on the right side for the 16th time in his career. For the 14th time, Staal was on his left.
The duo was by far the steadiest of the remodeled tandems Vigneault constructed to play in front of Lundqvist, who originally had not been slated to start, but got the call after having been pulled in Toronto after allowing five goals on 17 shots in the first period. Not only did the coach bench Chytil, but he also sat Brendan Smith, who had a horrid night in his hometown in the 8-5 defeat to the Maple Leafs.
Thus, while Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei comprised the second pair, Vigneault went with a Nick Holden-Steven Kampfer third pair. Tony DeAngelo, extremely skittish in Toronto, got just 2:08 at even-strength and 3:45 overall as the seventh defenseman.
The Rangers survived overwhelming 5-on-5 attempt numbers the wrong way through two periods (19 for and 39 against), many of which were racked up against the Holden-Kampfer duo. But Lundqvist, who seemed to be groping early, elevated his game after a pair of would-be Montreal goals within the first 8:59 were appropriately taken off the board following reviews.
“It helps when you get two goals scored that are not goals,” said Staal, plus-one in 19:08 of work. “We were able to take a breath after that and get into our game.”
Staal admitted he was uncertain whether the Rangers would buy him out. Instead they bought out Girardi, probably because he had three years remaining on his contract as opposed to Staal’s four.
“Me and G knew something was going to happen,” Staal said. “Obviously I wasn’t inside the four walls, so it was just a wait-and-see.”
It remains to be seen whether this alignment will stick. It remains to be seen whether Staal can stay healthy and whether he will be able to maintain as the pace of the game accelerates throughout the season.
“Just because I’m 30 doesn’t mean I can’t play,” Staal said. “I’m looking to put all that talk behind me.”