As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for their opening-round date with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the status of Sidney Crosby's return to the lineup remains unknown.
According to the Penguins, despite partaking in morning skates and still not cleared for contact, Crosby still has two more stages to go in his comeback from a concussion. As Dave Molinari wrote Saturday in the Post-Gazette, with Game 1 of their series beginning Wednesday and without any sort of clearance to play, the odds do not look good for a Crosby return anytime soon.
Enter Jordan Staal.
When Staal joined the Penguins organization in 2006, he fit perfectly into his slot as the No. 3 center. His defensive abilities would allow him to slide to third on the depth chart and let Crosby and Evgeni Malkin handle all of the offensive duties.
Despite stints centering one of the top two lines, Staal is Pittsburgh's shutdown center now and for the future.
But those plans had to be quickly adjusted when just two games into Staal's return from injury, Crosby left the Penguins' lineup with a concussion; then a month later it was Malkin falling to injury.
In the absence of Pittsburgh's two offensive stars, Staal was pressed into duty to shoulder the scoring load, as the team attempted to hold steady in the Eastern Conference.
With a new role, Staal has watched his time on-ice go up almost a full two minutes compared to his career average. He's also helped fill the offensive void left by the injuries to Crosby and Malkin. With his 11 goals and 30 points through 42 games, Staal would have passed his career high of 49 points over the course of a full season; not to mention he's tied his career high of four game-winning goals.
And while his shorthanded responsibilities have been cut by almost a minute compared to the previous three seasons, Staal has been needed on the power play and is seeing over three minutes a game with the extra man.
He's not going to be Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but as Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma told Rob Rossi this week, Staal's style of play gets the job done, even with new responsibilities.
From the Tribune-Review:
"If you're looking for Jordan to be Sidney Crosby, you're never going to see it. He, however, can beat Sidney Crosby straight up with the way Jordan Staal plays. That's what he's been - it may not be flashy, but he's a force down the middle and at both ends of the rink, and his penalty killing is outstanding. That, in and of itself, is something that's been a real factor for us being able to win games against good opposition."
Usually at this time of year Staal is preparing for shutdown duties against the top lines of Pittsburgh's first-round opponent, instead he'll be looked at to help provide the offense with Malkin and Crosby out and the team going about its business not expecting its captain to return this season.
So far so good for Staal, and as the Penguins now prep for the Lightning, it'll be up to him and trade acquisitions James Neal and Alex Kovalev to try and counter one of the NHL's top-10 offenses.
After going through four surgeries since last May's playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, Staal has taken his new roles on the ice as an offensive leader, and off the ice as a vocal leader in the locker room, and helped give the Penguins reason for optimism through their injury-filled season.