By Sean Hartnett
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With only 26 regular season games remaining, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault needs his top players to bring their “A” game to ensure a playoff berth.

Defenseman Marc Staal, typically rock solid, has underperformed this season, with coverage issues and puck management woes becoming far too common. The 29-year-old is expected to be a key piece of the Rangers‘ winning formula. When he’s on top of his game, Staal is an expert shutdown defenseman who utilizes his long reach and 6-foot-4, 207-pound frame to win one-on-one battles against the league’s best.

Following Saturday’s practice in Westchester, Vigneault delivered a strong message to the nine-year veteran.

“I still feel a guy like Marc Staal can give us a little bit more at both ends of the rink,” Vigneault said. “Marc is very strong mentally. He knows that this team needs him to play up to his level. He knows that his teammates count on him on a shift-to-shift basis. I’m very confident that tomorrow is a new game, a new day – he’s going to play a good game for us tomorrow.”

Following Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the rival Flyers, Staal admitted he was aware of Vigneault’s comments and mentioned that the 54-year-old coach had been delivering this kind of feedback to him behind closed doors for weeks.

“Yeah, I saw that,” Staal told WFAN.com. “That’s nothing new. We talked about it the last couple of weeks. I’m just trying to work and play my game, play on my toes, be a little more confident with the puck and a little more aggressive.”

Staal looked the part against Flyers. He led the Blueshirts skaters with 25:42 TOI and did a solid job limiting chances of Philadelphia’s top line, with many of his minutes coming against the three-headed monster that is Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. As a whole, the Rangers have played more assured and steady in their own end and killed four of five Flyers’ power plays with Staal logging 5:57 shorthanded minutes.

“I felt pretty good,” Staal said of his performance against the Flyers. “I played against Giroux’s line a lot. I thought we did a pretty good job against them. Obviously, I need to raise my level of play consistently, shift to shift, down the stretch here. I think it’s on me to respond. It’s a step tonight. We are winning games and that’s always a positive thing and easier to go through it, when you are going through a slump like this. I am just going to keep on working hard and try to get through it.”

Teammate Keith Yandle has seen signs of Staal’s game rebounding since captain Ryan McDonagh has missed the past four games due to a concussion.

“I think he’s been playing well,” Yandle told WFAN.com. “Especially since Mac’s been out, he’s been shutting down top lines. If you look at the teams we’ve played, they’ve all had top lines going into games where they’ve been really hot. He’s done a great job shutting them down.”

“He’s one of those guys who’s always blocking shots and making simple plays,” Yandle continued. “It might not get noticed as much as some other guys — but he’s a guy that when he’s at his best, he’s helping us win games. The way he shields the puck and makes little plays in the corner, we all notice it in here. I think he’s probably the best in the league at shielding the puck and making good plays, helping us get out of our end.”

In McDonagh’s absence, shutdown man Dan Girardi has raised his game. McDonagh has spent three consecutive days on ice and is pushing toward a return. Though he is yet to be cleared for contact, he has begun lifting and has spent time after practices working on conditioning and agility drills with assistant coach Darryl Williams. The Rangers do not practice Monday, and it’s possible he could be medically cleared for contact ahead of Tuesday’s 11 a.m. practice.

With McDonagh closing in on a return to game action, Yandle performing like an elite offense-generating defenseman, Kevin Klein providing his usual solidity and Girardi finding his game — the Rangers are going to be in good shape for the stretch run if Staal can get his game back on track.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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