Jordan Staal has yet to play a game on the Penguins’ new home ice at CONSOL Energy Center. Saturday night, though, he’s set to make his season debut across Pittsburgh’s three rivers on the makeshift rink at Heinz Field, on the grand stage of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
“I feel good; there’s definitely no question that I’m able to play,” Staal said. “I think everyone – the doctors, me, the coaches and trainers – feels pretty comfortable with me getting out there. It’s really exciting.”
For the 22-year-old center, it’s been a long time coming.
Staal had never missed a regular-season game due to injury before missing the Penguins’ first 39 this year. First came a nightmarish summer of foot surgeries and infections after his tendon was sliced by Montreal defenseman PK Subban’s skate in last year’s playoffs. Then, just as he was about to make a comeback attempt in early November, his hand was hit by a puck in practice, a freak accident that caused a fracture and yet more surgery.
“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Staal said. “About three times, I was ready to play and it got taken away from me.”
Now, Staal has not only resumed skating with his teammates in practice, but has been stickhandling – a sure sign that the hand is coming along – and looking good doing it.
Although Staal has been medically cleared to return, the decision on whether to insert him into the lineup for this high-profile, regular-season game against a bitter rival was a delicate one for head coach Dan Bylsma. Especially when Staal was clearly itching to play in what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a Winter Classic in his adopted hometown.
“Considering the fact that it’s his first game coming up, and [he] hasn’t had a training camp, and has gone through the injuries, it’s more difficult versus if he’d [participated in] training camp and played 20 games and then missed 15,” Bylsma said.
“It’s tough to figure out where to put a guy back in who hasn’t had a training camp and hasn’t played, and the confidence level with the injuries that he’s had and the one that he’s coming off of, [those] are issues going in.”
Now that the decision’s been made, fans can expect to see Staal spend some time centering Evgeni Malkin, a combination the Penguins have been planning to try since the offseason.
“That still is the plan,” Bylsma said. “We’ve had discussions about when [Staal] does get back, what kind of role he’d be played in, and I don’t think we’d put him in a 20-minute, 19-minute role that he’s been in in the past. But I can see him jumping right in to 14 to 16 minutes, penalty killing and playing center with Malkin on the wing.”
For Staal’s teammates, who have forged their way to the top of the league standings even while missing this important piece of their lineup, this might feel a little less like New Year’s Day and a little more like Christmas.
“He’s a really key piece on our team, especially on the PK,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “He can shut down the top line on every team. He’s always the first guy back in our zone to help out. It’s going to be a great help to us.”
It’s a safe bet that no one feels more giddy than Staal. Even if he can’t help tempering his enthusiasm a bit by wondering if, this time, his comeback is truly, finally going to happen.
“Now that it’s finally here, it doesn’t really even seem real yet,” he said. “But I know as soon as I get on that ice and play a couple shifts, it’ll really sink in. It gives me chills now, and I’m really excited for it.”