PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Jordan Staal’s left knee is fine. His face, however, could use some work.
The Pittsburgh Penguins centre plans to play Saturday against Winnipeg in his first game since injuring the knee in a loss to the New York Rangers on Jan. 6. The road back has gone smoothly enough until Staal started practising with his teammates this week.
In the span of a couple days Staal took a stick to the mouth courtesy of Evgeni Malkin and his left eye sports a welt following a collision. At this point, the safest place for Staal to be may be on the ice against another team.
“I’m feeling really good,” Staal said. “The last couple days were great just getting a couple practices with the team, getting the timing back and everything. Things are looking up.”
The Penguins could certainly use the boost Staal’s presence should provide. Though Pittsburgh has righted itself following a six-game losing streak that spanned the new year—going 9-2-1 since the streak ended Jan. 13—the Penguins have gotten by largely on the back of Malkin, James Neal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Malkin and Neal have combined for 19 of Pittsburgh’s 35 goals during its recent run while Fleury is playing perhaps the best hockey of his career. The Penguins know they’ll need other lines to produce if they want to advance deep into the playoffs even if captain Sidney Crosby doesn’t make it back from concussion-like symptoms.
Crosby skated for about an hour early Friday. While there remains no timetable for his return, the team is cautiously optimistic he’ll be back sometime before the postseason.
Until then, it will be up to Staal to give the team a second productive line that can take some of the pressure off Neal and Malkin.
Staal looked up to the task before smacking knees with New York’s Mike Rupp during a 3-1 loss. He had 15 goals in 34 games at the time of the injury, putting him on pace to surpass his career high of 29 goals set during the 2006-07 season.
“He understands how big and strong he is,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s not a dangle in front of you, go around you and through you type of player.
“But when he uses his strength, he can overpower people.”
Bylsma expects to play Staal “15-plus” minutes and is optimistic Staal can play on both Saturday and Sunday, when the Penguins host Tampa Bay.
Dupuis doesn’t think it will take long to get into sync with Staal at centre.
“You look at the way we play, and it’s not like one line plays one way and another line plays another way,” Dupuis said. “We all end up playing with each other at some point, whether it’s on special teams or whatever.
“We know what (Staal) can do and we know how he likes to play.”
Staal is trying to temper expectations, mostly in hopes he doesn’t jinx himself. The player who didn’t miss a game during his first four seasons in the league has sat out significant chunks of time in each of the last two seasons.
“It’s tough being out,” Staal said. “I think that’s the hardest thing, just missing the guys and the daily stuff.
“It doesn’t get any easier, that’s for sure. I’m glad to be back.”