In the absence of superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the man who rounds out the Pittsburgh Penguins’ enviable depth down the middle is taking the opportunity to shine.
Ten games into the season, Jordan Staal has somewhat quietly put up eight points (5G, 3A), good for second-best on the team and a spot in the league’s top 20 scorers. He’s not only picking up some of the slack for his missing teammates on the scoreboard, but he’s logging plenty of extra minutes in all situations; of the top 30 NHL scorers, only one forward – Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar – has seen more ice per game.
“He’s doing everything – he kills penalties, he plays against top lines,” said forward Chris Kunitz. “Staalsy’s a guy who flies under the radar, with a bunch of superstars on this team, but we know how good he is. He’s proven it, year after year. Right now, we’re missing some guys and he’s going out and [putting up] the numbers we believe he can always do.”
Saturday, with the Penguins hosting the New Jersey Devils, Staal notched two goals – including the 100th of his career – first opening the scoring, then punctuating a sequence that gave his club control of a game that could’ve gone either way.
With the Penguins up 1-0 to start the third period, Devils veteran Patrik Elias committed a high-sticking foul on Pittsburgh forward Steve Sullivan, drawing blood to earn a double-minor penalty. But former Penguin Petr Sykora convinced the officials he was responsible for the infraction, skating to the box and leaving Elias – a top penalty killer – on the ice.
As luck would have it, Elias scored a shorthanded goal, tying the game at 1-1.
“We weren’t too happy on the bench, obviously,” Staal said. “It’s tough for the refs to catch the right guy sometimes, but it’s tough to see the guy who should’ve been in the box score the goal.”
But what could’ve turned into a major issue was quickly negated when Kunitz scored on the power play just over a minute later, then Staal added another just over a minute after that. With a final tally from James Neal – still on a tear with his eighth of the year – the Penguins rolled to a 4-1 win to improve their record to 6-2-2.
“After we gave up that shorthanded goal, Kuni had a great goal to keep us going, put us back in the right direction, and, from then on, I felt like we pretty much dominated,” Staal said. “They were [playing] back-to-back [games] and we kind of took it to them in the third there. They looked a little tired, and we really worked for the rest of the game and found a way to win.”
That was largely on the strength of Staal’s strong play at both of the ice.
“We had a really strong third period, especially from Jordan Staal,” said head coach Dan Byslma. “He played outstanding, both [on the] power play and five-on-five. He and his line were going out against [Ilya] Kovalchuk most of the night, so it was a tall order, and came up with a huge third goal to add on and make it comfortable.”
Only two Penguins – defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin – logged more ice time than Staal’s 22:14, which included nearly six minutes on the man-advantage. Staal co-led the team with five shots, played aggressive with three hits and a takeaway, and went just shy of even in the faceoff circle.
A former Selke Trophy nominee, Staal has always had strong defensive-forward credentials. But, at age 23, Staal looks to be seeing the ice better than ever, and learning how to use his big, 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame to its best advantage to give his team time and space.
“One play he made in particular, to Dustin Jeffrey on the power play breakout, was an elite play, a great play, a skill play,” Bylsma said. “But I think the biggest thing you’re seeing is that his skating ability has opened that up for him. His speed wide, his power wide is creating different things for him, not only driving the net but also in the playmaking ability and holding onto the puck down low. He’s such a big guy, and if he holds onto the puck for 10 [or] 12 seconds down there, that gives him the ability to make a play. When he does those things, he’s a force.”
Because he lacks the offensive flash of a Crosby or Malkin – and because he’s willing to take on some of the more thankless tasks to help the team win – Staal’s contributions are sometimes easy to overlook. That’s never been a problem inside the Penguins’ dressing room, however.
“I don’t think Staalsy worries about those things,” Kunitz said. “He comes out every night and plays as hard as he can. When other guys go out on the power play, he knows that he’s either going out on penalty killing or he’s shutting down a first line. Everybody takes a little bit to be a good team, and right now he’s giving back and he’s doing a lot of good things for our team to win games.”
One hundred goals into his NHL career, Staal hopes it’s just the beginning.
“I felt good tonight. The legs felt good, the hands felt good as well, and I had a good game,” Staal said. “It’s obviously a huge milestone, and I want to keep moving forward.”