He’s well aware that the Hockey Night In Canada commentator has gushed with enthusiasm while playing up pretty Staal goals as video rolls. “I’ll take the compliments,” says the 18-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins forward. “A couple of them might have been a little farfetched but it’s nice to get that kind of recognition from somebody of his stature.”
Staal skates into Air Canada Centre for the first time Saturday night (7 p.m. ET) for a game with the Maple Leafs and he’d love to provide Cherry with another highlight-reel gem. It would probably come with a teammate in the penalty box.
It was Staal’s penalty-killing prowess that unexpectedly earned him an NHL job with Pittsburgh last autumn, and he’s excelled at his speciality during his first big-league season.
The six-foot-four native of Thunder Bay, Ont., leads the league with five short-handed goals.
“I try to jump on my opportunities when (opponents) least expect offence,” he says.
He has a knack for correctly anticipating passes he can intercept.
“You don’t want to overanticipate on the PK,” he said after practice Friday. “A loose puck here and there and you take off when they’re least expecting it.”
Staal doesn’t get a lot of attention skating on the same team as league scoring leader Sidney Crosby and leading rookie-of-the-year candidate Evgeni Malkin, and that’s just fine with him.
He has 20 goals in all. The 20-year-old Malkin has 26 and the 19-year-old Crosby has 25, and this will be the first season since the Edmonton Oilers 27 years ago that one team has three players under the age of 21 with more than 20 goals.
“It’s kind of a neat comparison,” Staal said. “It’s an exciting time for us.
“Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Staal was only 17 when he went to Pittsburgh’s training camp. Everybody presumed he’d be returned to the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, but he was so impressive that he stuck. His work ethic and natural ability made it happen.
“I was working hard just to make the team and now that I’m here I’m working hard to get ice time and to get goals,” he said. “It’s paying off.”
Staal and Crosby share the team lead in plus-minus with plus-13 totals. Staal spreads the credit around.
“It helps playing with Evgeni and Michel Ouellet,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my best defensively.
“I’m still learning and trying to soak in as much as I can. Older guys like (Mark) Recchi and (Sergei) Gonchar have been helping me. So far everything is going pretty well.”
Given his size, his previous coaches drilled him on making best use of his body. A two-way game was always in the cards for him.
“In juniors, I was always kind of one of the bigger guys so was counted on defensively,” he says. “I took that into account this season so, when I got my chance on the penalty kill I did a pretty good job at it, and it just kind of took off from there.”
Older brother Eric Staal plays for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Penguins are in good position to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
“I have a weird feeling we’re going to play them in the first round,” said little brother. “Hopefully we both make it and go from there.”
Pittsburgh’s recent winning ways are a welcome relief to Pens fans.
“A lot of it is just confidence,” said Staal. “Once you get on a roll you start coming to games feeling confident and knowing you have a chance to win every game.”
He’s been looking forward to this game for a while. A friend will be in from Thunder Bay to watch. His parents have been travelling a lot lately so they’ll skip this one, he said.
“It’ll be a neat experience,” he said of his first NHL game in Toronto. “Everyone in this dressing room says it’s unbelievable and that the atmosphere can be pretty crazy.
“Hopefully I can have a good game.”
If he does, Cherry will make sure the world knows.