Staal could make return tonight in Winter Classic

| Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011

Rain will come and Jordan Staal could play at the Winter Classic, where the NHL's most heated rivalry is hotter after the latest episode of HBO's "24/7" series.

After a practice Friday afternoon on an Heinz Field ice surface reviewed by Penguins players as "soft but good," coach Dan Bylsma declared Staal as a "game-time decision" to play today against the Washington Capitals.

Forward Mike Rupp, while noting his lack of medical expertise, said Staal "looked really good to me" during an hour-plus session that was conducted in light rain.

The status of Staal, who has not played this season because of right foot and hand injuries, is uncertain. Rainy conditions appear to be a certainty this afternoon, according to multiple weather forecasting outlets.

Former Penguins forward Gary Roberts described the Heinz Field ice surface as "good," but he added that "the rain's not going to help much."

Staal's return would help, given his standing as an elite defensive forward who produced 49 points in each of the past two seasons. He has undergone four surgeries (three on his foot, one to his hand) since last May, and he only started practicing with teammates this past Sunday.

Staal was not available for comment in a crowded Steelers dressing room that is serving as the Penguins' home quarters at Heinz Field.

Bylsma declined to provide details of what would go into the "game-time decision," but did offer "it's tough to figure out where to put a guy back in who hasn't had the training camp and hasn't played."

If Staal does play, center Evgeni Malkin would move to right wing on a second line anchored by Staal at center. That was Bylsma's plan coming into the season, and Malkin has worked at his natural center spot for only about the past six weeks.

Bylsma said he "could see (Staal) jumping right into 14 to 16 minutes (of) penalty killing and playing center with Malkin on the right wing."

The eventual return of Staal might force opponents to take a different tact against Malkin, whom the Capitals believe can be frustrated into taking retaliation penalties.

Malkin said he was not aware of footage from Wednesday's HBO episode during which coach Bruce Boudreau challenged Capitals players to ratchet up the physical play against him in hopes of drawing penalties. Malkin did commit a retaliation foul in a win at Washington on Dec. 23.

"I don't concern myself with that," he said, adding that he has not seen the episode. "But I will watch now."

Bylsma said the HBO footage was "not the first time" he has heard of coaches using that strategy against Malkin. He called Boudreau's instructions "a compliment" to Malkin.

"I thought it was interesting," said Rupp, who was shown in the episode being told by Bylsma to keep hitting Capitals defenseman Mike Green. "You think about it. If you know that that's a strategy... we'd be lying if we said we aren't listening to what they're saying and that they're not listening to what we're saying."

The Capitals were listening, including when Bylsma described goalie Michal Neuvirth as "not that good."

"You laugh, but if I were (Malkin) it certainly would (tick) me off," Washington left wing Jason Chimera said. "Same if I were (Green). Nobody likes to hear that stuff said about them."

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