New York Rangers veteran center Brad Richards recalls a game more than three years ago back when he was playing for the Dallas Stars. It was a 3-2 shootout loss for the Stars at American Airlines Center, and it was a game that Richards remembers well because of the way defenseman Marc Staal performed.

He recalled how hard of a time he had playing against Staal, whose long reach and sound stick work disrupted Dallas’ play during the 33:06 of ice time Staal logged. Staal finished the game with an assist and plus-1. That stellar match has stuck with Richards even since the two have become teammates on Broadway.

After a rocky two years that were largely derailed following a pair of devastating injuries, Staal is looking more and more like that player Richards remembers.

“We've only been able to see a little bit of it because all of the major injuries he’s had, not just little things,” Richards said. “That takes a lot of time. I think as time goes, a full year this year pretty much, hopefully we’ll see him closer and closer to how he was.”

Staal missed extended time due to lingering effects of a concussion in 2012, and endured another lengthy absence after a harrowing eye injury in 2013, but Staal played in 72 regular-season games and all eight playoff matches for the Rangers this year. That sort of continuity has enabled the re-emergence of Staal as one of the steadiest defensemen in this league.

He was awarded the team’s sartorial MVP trophy, the Broadway Hat, following his effort in the Rangers 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He ranks third on the team in ice time with an average of 20:24 in ice time per game and has two points and is plus-7 through eight games this playoffs.

His teammates have been heartened to see this progress, not just as benefactors of his play on the ice, but because of how well liked and respected Staal is off the ice as well.

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Marc Staal,” said young center Derek Stepan, who was invited to live with Staal while he was in between apartment during the NHL lockout, “Since I’ve gotten here, he’s been someone I can lean on.”

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault knew Staal only by reputation while he was coaching in Vancouver. This season he has gotten to witness the 27-year-old’s growth first-hand.

“I think he’s a guy this year that has improved throughout the year,” Vigneault said during the Rangers’ media availability in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon. “We always knew he was a good defender and he’s still one of the best defenders in the league in my opinion but he’s also, this year, he’s improved his puck decisions. He improved moving the puck, helping us break out a little quicker out of our own end.”

That’s been vital for the Rangers, especially this season as they’ve embraced a speed game that requires the defensemen to activate from the back end. Those sort of quick plays had given Staal difficulty in the past. His eye injury previously impacted his depth perception and appeared to make him less sure of himself when he had the puck on his stick.

But constant repetition and consistent playing time has improved that facet of his play as he has reverted back to trusting his instincts rather than trying to anticipate the play.

“The more hockey you play, the more automatic things become. You kind of get into the groove as the season goes along where you’re not always thinking too much, you’re just playing,” Staal said. “At the large part at the beginning of the year, I was thinking too much of what I should do next instead of just reacting or playing, and those decisions [that] become natural and automatic to you weren’t there really at the beginning. Throughout the year, I think that’s gotten better.”

Staal’s return to form has been a godsend to the Rangers, particularly in the playoffs when neutralizing an opponent’s top players becomes even more critical throughout the course of a seven-game series. The Rangers already boast an outstanding first defensive pairing in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, but Staal’s steadiness on the blue line has meshed seamlessly with the understated, yet heady Anton Stralman.