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Staal likely to play today after monthlong absence

Even with new stitches in his upper lip, Jordan Staal was feeling optimistic about his health and his season now that his month-long layoff has ended.

"Things are looking up," said Staal, who will rejoin the Penguins' lineup today for an afternoon game against the Winnipeg Jets at Consol Energy Center. Staal hasn't played since injuring his left knee Jan. 6.

"The knee feels really strong and everything feels really good," he said.

Staal's recovery and return will be uplifting for a team all too familiar with injuries, including several to Staal.

"He's had some bad luck in the injury department," said Matt Cooke, now paired with Pascal Dupuis on a line centered by Staal. "He's a big part of this hockey club. It's fun to see him out there."

Staal's play was strong from October through December, as he learned to better use his skating and speed in combination with his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame. He had 15 goals in 34 games, putting him then on pace for around 35 - which would have been a career high.

"This year more than any, he's understood exactly how big and strong he is," coach Dan Bylsma said. "That has led to better offensive opportunities for him ... When he uses his speed and strength, it can overpower defenders, and they can't get the puck off him. He's done that significantly better than he has in the past."

Staal's medial collateral ligament was injured when he collided with New York Rangers forward Mike Rupp, a former Penguins teammate. Despite the knee-to-knee hit, Staal said yesterday that there was "no bad blood" between them and added that Rupp was "an awesome guy."

This wasn't the first time Staal has dealt with injuries, including a foot injury two seasons ago that later became infected, and a broken hand last season. He's become a reluctant expert at rehab.

"I think you learn a lot," Staal said. "It's tough being out. I think that's the hardest thing, just missing the guys and just the daily stuff. It doesn't get any easier, that's for sure."

The stitches in Staal's lip were from Thursday's practice, when he got hit in the face with a stick. It was reminiscent of last season, when Staal was just about to return from injury but was struck in the hand with a bone-breaking shot during practice.

"You just shake your head and can't believe it," Cooke said. "It's unfathomable."

Staal shrugged it off.

"It's been tough," he said. "But those things happen, I guess."

With the Penguins playing today and Sunday, Staal's conditioning will be tested. Bylsma said ideally Staal's ice time will be limited to around 15 minutes, down from the 20:23 he's averaged this season. He'll be used for the second-team power play, but his penalty-killing time could be limited.

His return gives the Penguins another solid line and could help lessen the scoring burden carried by Evgeni Malkin and the team's top line.

"You've definitely seen Geno's line doing a great job," Staal said. "They're putting a lot of numbers up, but the guys have been playing unbelievable all the way down the lineup. We're winning games. We've got some scorers, for sure, all throughout the lineup. I'm just another piece."

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