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Starkey: Staal's quiet transformation

Even when he nets a power-play goal, a short-handed goal and an even-strength assist, Jordan Staal is not the story.

Can't be.

Not with Evgeni Lemieux -- or is it Mario Malkin• -- roaming around.

Malkin made Tampa Bay defenseman Brett Clark look like Dick Clark on a memorable third-period goal Saturday in the Penguins' 8-1 victory.

You feel lucky to be in the building when a great player scores a signature goal like that. I immediately thought of Jaromir Jagr swatting a puck out of midair on his stomach against Ron Hextall some 13 years earlier.

Malkin finished with a hat trick and four points. He snatched back the NHL scoring lead from Steven Stamkos. He reminded everyone that he is the finest active player on the planet.

But I'm here to talk about Staal, who has quietly revolutionized his game.

He is a goal scorer now.

He is a star in his own right.

And he gives the Penguins an elite No. 2 center in case Sidney Crosby isn't ready for the playoffs.

"Just feeling good," said Staal, who seems determined to never make anyone's All-Interview Team. "I think for the most part I've just had a lot of opportunities. It's a change to play a lot more on the offensive side of the puck."

Crosby's absence prompted that change. Staal was asked to step into an offensive role last season, too, but didn't have the insulation of a top center ahead of him.

Now he does -- and now he is finishing plays with authority and panache. His short-handed breakaway in the first period, aided by linesman Steve Miller's blatant interference on defenseman Victor Hedman, was a perfect example. Staal snapped a low bull's eye between the pads of goalie Dwayne Roloson, who at 42 is old enough to be Staal's father and played like he could be Staal's great-great grandfather.

Staal scored his second goal when he corralled a bouncing pass from Steve Sullivan and calmly whacked it past Roloson.

That gave Staal 21 goals in just 41 games. His goal-per-game average (.512) beats that of three of the top five goal scorers in the league.

Ask anyone around the club about Staal, on or off the record, and you will hear only glowing testimonials. They all know that at 23 years, five months old, he is nowhere near his prime ...

• Linemate Pascal Dupuis spoke of Staal's dedication off the ice, both during the offseason and when Staal missed time with a knee injury.

"He put in the hours in the gym," Dupuis said, "and now it's paying off."

• Lightning scout and former Penguins head scout Greg Malone remains confident that he made the right recommendation to general manager Ray Shero to take Staal second overall in the 2006 NHL Draft.

That was one slot ahead of Jonathan Toews, who has become a star for the Blackhawks. Of course, as Malone said, "If Ray had wanted to take Toews, he would have taken Toews."

Shero wanted Staal -- and is mighty glad he took him.

• I asked Marianne Watkins, a noted skating instructor who works with Penguins players, which player's skating impresses her the most. She did not hesitate in naming Staal, citing his long, powerful strides.

• Assistant coach Tony Granato described Staal's recent play as "awesome." Granato pointed out that when Crosby and Malkin are in the lineup, Staal spends most of his time playing against the other team's top line, worrying about defense first.

"With Sid or Geno out, you expect more -- you need more -- scoring," Granato said. "The biggest thing is his confidence. (Goal scoring) was an area he really thought he could help with -- and you see the numbers going up."

Not as high as Malkin's, of course. Nobody can make that claim.

"Geno," Staal said, "can take over a game with one shift."

So can another guy I know.

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