Resilient Staal nearing return for Penguins
MONTREAL — For the record, his skin-tight shirt soaked in perspiration after an hour-long practice at Bell Centre on Wednesday morning was black — not blue with a family crest of "S" on the front and a red cape attached to the back.
There remains no evidence that Superman plays center for the Penguins under the alias of Jordan Staal, whose return to the lineup after surgery last Friday night to repair a severed tendon in his right foot appears remarkably near.
"Seriously, he sets the bar pretty high for everybody else," Penguins right wing Tyler Kennedy said of Staal, his road roommate and Pittsburgh neighbor. "He's just always been good about dealing with pain. One day during practice he hurt his hip flexor. I'm practically dragging him to my car for the drive home and I'm thinking, 'No way is this guy playing tomorrow night.' He suits up and is out there playing great.
"Whatever he does to keep playing is fine. He should keep doing it because, well, look at what you're seeing."
The Penguins weren't surprised to see Staal defy reasonable expectations by practicing for more than 60 minutes yesterday only four full days after his foot was cut near the right big toe by the skate blade of Canadiens defenseman PK Subban.
Conventional wisdom, not to mention insight from those closest to Staal, pointed to him returning for the Stanley Cup Final.
However, coach Dan Bylsma did not dismiss the possibility of him playing tonight at Montreal in Game 4 of a best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series that the Penguins lead, 2-1.
"It's a good question," Bylsma said. "You watched the 4-on-4 (drill), and a couple of times he busted through the defense and skated by guys, and you didn't see anything that reminded you'd he'd had a major injury on his foot.
"We'll see how his foot reacts, but judging by the end of his practice I'm a lot more comfortable with how he skated than when he first got out there. If he can skate like that there's a possibility, depending on how he is (this morning), that he ..."
The words Bylsma used to finish that thought were "could be day-to-day," but "could play" seemed on the tip of his tongue as he paused briefly to collect his thoughts while Penguins media relations staff members rolled their eyes.
Staal, who would wear protective Plexiglas skate shields upon a return, did not approach a declaration that he would play tonight or at any point in this series. Of the words he spoke, this phrase stood out:
"You want to get back as soon as you can no matter what, even if there's pain involved."
His regular left wing the past two years, Matt Cooke, figured Staal would take that stance. After all, before this injury Staal had never missed a game in four NHL season because of injury.
He was loath to sit a shift.
"I was on the ice this year when he took the puck to the nose, was gushing blood, and it hurt so bad he was whimpering. Five stitches and a (face shield), and he's back on the ice," Cooke said, also recalling Staal's return to a game after receiving "30 or 40 stitches for a gash on his inner thigh."
Cooke dismissed words such as "surprise" and "shock" that were bandied about by members of the media who watched Staal's practice session from the arena stands. He offered "courageous" before settling on the word he felt best suited for Staal.
"I'd say 'character,' " Cooke said. "His willingness to do whatever it takes for this team is something I've seen every day. It's not just playing through pain, and I'm sure there is pain for him just getting into that skate boot. It's his willingness to take on the role here as a shutdown center, never say 'boo hoo' and do an amazing job of it, even though I'm sure he has thoughts where he could fit in on another team.
"I've never heard him complain about anything like that. The only thing he complains about are my passes. I sent him a text on Saturday asking how he was doing, and Jordan sent one back that read, 'Don't worry, I'll be chasing down your bad passes real soon.'"
From any other player, Staal's text response could have been perceived as him keeping a stiff upper lip in the wake of a crushing setback.
From Superman, it was a promise.
Friday night, approximately 8:30 p.m.: Leaves Game 1 near the midpoint of the second period after his right skate is cut by the skate blade of Canadiens defenseman PK Subban.
Friday night, approximately 10 p.m.: Leaves Mellon Arena with a walking boot on his right leg.
Saturday morning, approximately 11 a.m.: Coach Dan Bylsma declares Staal is "day-to-day" after having a "procedure" Friday night to repair a "severed tendon on his right foot;" those close to Staal tell the Tribune-Review he could return for the Stanley Cup Final.
Sunday afternoon: Seen walking around Mellon Arena in a walking boot on his right leg.
Tuesday morning, approximately 11 a.m.: Skates briefly, for about five minutes, at Bell Centre, dressed in a track warm-up suit.
Wednesday morning, 11:30 a.m.: Dressed in full pads, participates in a 60-minute optional practice. Bylsma does not dismiss that he could play in Game 4 at Montreal.