Eric Staal (12) shoots on Montreal Canadiens goalie Mike Condon (39) on Saturday night.
MONTREAL — Eric Staal made his first start on the wing in his 13th game as a Ranger Saturday night, skating in the ninth different alignment Alain Vigneault has shown with Staal since his trade from Carolina on Feb. 28.
It marked just his second move out of the middle to the left side, including a third-period bump onto a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello in Staal’s first game as a Blueshirt on Feb. 29 against Columbus.
Saturday’s move may have been the coach’s way of giving Kevin Hayes one last chance, back in his more comfortable center position, to validate six straight games dressed ahead of Oscar Lindberg. But the real surprise since Staal’s acquisition is that Vigneault has used him to kill penalties despite that Staal had not having played regular shorthanded minutes for the Hurricanes since 2013-14.
Vigneault said at Bell Centre that the Rangers aimed to use Staal on the penalty kill once assistant Ulf Samuelsson got positive feedback from former Cup-winning Penguins teammate and Canes GM Ron Francis.
“It’s one of the things we had discussed,” Vigneault said of Staal, 31, on the kill. “That was an area especially on the road that we needed to get better (at), and he had not done much of it in Carolina. But since Ulfie’s very good friends with Francis, they had a discussion about it, and they felt it was something he could do.”
Staal averaged more than one minute of shorthanded ice time per game in five of his 11-plus seasons in Carolina, topping out at 1:31 per game in 2008-09. The past two seasons, though, he had played a measly total 10 minutes and 30 seconds on the Canes’ kill in 140 games — only join the Rangers and log 10 minutes and five seconds (50 seconds per match) through 12 games.
“(He gives) us another option in the middle as far as face-offs,” said Vigneault, who sought support for a struggling Dominic Moore on draws. “As we know, face-offs in your zone (under the NHL’s new rule), you’ve got to put your stick down first (as the defensive center). It’s a little more challenging.”
The results have been mixed: Staal has been on ice for just opposing power play goal, but the Rangers’ overall penalty kill (19-for-26, 73.1%) has been worse through 12 games than its 28th-ranked season average (77.1%). They also are still dead last in the NHL on the road (72.8%).