Gorman: Pens proving they miss Staal

Kevin Gorman
| Monday, Oct. 11, 2010

The NHL schedule-makers did the Penguins no favors when assigning their first three games against the Eastern Conference champions, the team that eliminated them from the Stanley Cup playoffs and the team they couldn't beat last season.

After one-goal losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens at Consol Energy Center prior to today's game at the New Jersey Devils, it's too early to tell much about the Penguins other than this:

They really miss Jordan Staal.

Staal is out indefinitely while recovering from an infection on his right foot, the one that had a tendon sliced in a collision with Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban in Game 1 of their second-round series and required surgery that caused Staal to miss all but playoff games.

It's a setback Staal called "the first bump" of his career.

For the Penguins, it's more like a detour.

Having Staal sit out has thrown a wrench into their offseason plans to maneuver their lineup to play to the strengths of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Those two, along with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, appear to be the players most affected by Staal's absence.

The Penguins had planned to move Staal to their second line, allowing Evgeni Malkin to play wing next to an elite center. They also wanted Staal to continue his role on their first penalty-killing unit and to try him in front of the net on their top power play.

Instead, Malkin has skated with free agent Mike Comrie and, now, rookie Mark Letestu. No offense to either player, but neither is in Staal's class. Not even close. Malkin has one goal in the first two games, a slap shot from the right point against Montreal at the end of a 4-on-3 advantage.

Crosby has been forced to play more on the penalty kill, minutes which can wear him down. Hard penalty-kill minutes could help explain why Crosby scored only one goal and three points in the six playoff games after Staal was injured, and why he has only an assist in the first two games of this season.

Fleury was brilliant at times against Montreal on Saturday night before being victimized by two late goals, the tying one of which defenseman Brooks Orpik blamed on lapses on the forecheck when Malkin's line was on the ice. That is where Staal would have been at his best, using his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and skills to win the puck in the corners.

Remember, the Detroit Red Wings had no answer for Staal in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, where he was a force at both ends of the ice. His short-handed goal in Game 4 was the series momentum shifter.

The Red Wings are a perfect example of how an elite two-way player can have an effect on his teammates. Two of their 2008 Stanley Cup heroes, center Henrik Zetterberg and goalie Chris Osgood, struggled without Selke winner Pavel Datsyuk in the 2009 Cup Final. When Datsyuk returned for Game 5 after missing two-plus weeks, it energized Detroit in a 5-0 victory.

Datsyuk might have 10 years on the 22-year-old Staal, but their significance to their teams is the same. They are stars in their own right but willing to do the dirty work that allows their talented teammates to shine brighter.

Staal's significance to the Penguins in the regular season became obvious last year. He tied his career high with 49 points while finishing plus-19 and was a finalist for the Selke Trophy, given to the game's top two-way forward. The Penguins split those two playoff games he missed, and he wasn't healthy enough in the first game back to help protect a two-goal, third-period lead in what proved to be a pivotal Game 4 loss with a chance to take a 3-1 series lead.

Staal is the difference between the Penguins being a Cup contender and just a playoff team. The Penguins realize his importance and value to their team, which is why he will take turns with Orpik serving as an alternate captain.

It's no coincidence that Penguins general manager Ray Shero has said Staal is a player with whom you win championships.

What's becoming clear is that Staal is a player without whom you don't.

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