With Crosby Out, Staal Line Steps Up

When the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted their two-time Stanley Cup rival, the Detroit Red Wings, Tuesday, the matchup lacked some of its usual luster. Detroit was without many of its regulars – including Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom and Chris Osgood – and Pittsburgh was without Sidney Crosby.

Coming off two consecutive wins, however, the Penguins felt confident that they had finally figured out how to win without their captain, rebounding from an 0-2-1 skid after Crosby was sidelined with a mild concussion. And they pulled out another Tuesday, getting goals from four different players and points from eight in a 4-1 win over the Red Wings.

“With some of the injuries we’ve had … I think, through our system, different players can step up and do a lot of good things in different roles,” said Jordan Staal.

No one has done more good things since Crosby has been out than Staal. After missing the first half of the season due to a nightmarish sequence of injuries, infections and surgeries, the 22-year-old center has found his groove over the past three games, contributing six points (3G, 3A) in wins over Montreal, Boston and Detroit.

“Seeing Jordan back, the way he can control the middle of the ice, play down low, be a force – he had an outstanding game tonight, matched up against their top line with [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Johan] Franzen,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “You see it on the PK, you see it at the end of the game where they pull their goalie. We don’t have Sidney Crosby right now, but that’s something that we didn’t have earlier in the year.”

And, perhaps not coincidentally, Staal has done it while reunited with his linemates of the past couple of years, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, who have contributed three (1G, 2A) and four (1G, 3A) points, respectively, in the three wins.

With a wealth of star centers in Crosby, Staal and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have toyed with the idea of moving Malkin to Staal’s wing to create two formidable top lines. Bylsma has tried that combination since Staal returned January 1, but it’s proven tough so far to match the longtime chemistry of Cooke-Staal-Kennedy.

“I think the biggest strength of our line is the way that we communicate,” Cooke said. “We’re always open for criticism. If [I] want to do something different, or TK or Staalsy wants me to do something different, I wouldn’t know unless he tells me. We’ve made that very clear since day one that we’ve been together, and it’s suited us well.”

With its combined 13 points over three games, the reunited line is making a case to stay together, even when Crosby returns to the lineup.

“They’re doing something similar to what they need to do” to make that case, Bylsma said. “Even when I’ve talked about putting Malkin on the wing with Jordan, I also talked about possibly changing the matchup situations. Tonight, we’re in a game where it’s a perfect matchup situation for Jordan Staal to go with Cooke and Kennedy against Zetterberg and Franzen.

“[But] they were effective in the Boston game, they’ve been effective in the Montreal game, adding to our team. And, yes, when Sid comes back, the thought has dawned on me of possibly leaving that line together and seeing what we can get with Geno [Malkin] in the middle as a second-line center.”

The three players complement each other with a gritty, physical presence that helps open up the ice for their offensive capabilities.

“I think that my aggressiveness has maybe worn off on TK a little bit; he tends to be a little grittier when he’s with me,” Cooke said. “And, playing with those two guys, knowing that they’re going to be physical as well, there’s an opportunity for me to make the offensive play a little more when it’s there.”

What will happen when Bylsma has his full complement of healthy centers to work with is anyone’s guess. For now, however, with the league’s leading scorer on the shelf for the past two weeks and no timetable for his return, the line of Cooke-Staal-Kennedy is glad to be contributing to the Penguins’ cause.

“That’s not up to us. We’ve spent the better part of the last two years together, but whatever happens happens, and we’ll have to deal with it,” Cooke said. “We’re just doing what we can to help the team win, and that happens to be together right now.”

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