For ex-Pens star Staal and his replacement Sutter, a role reversal
Jordan Staal makes his return to Pittsburgh on Saturday night, but for the first time in his career, he won't be returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The man who replaced him on the Penguins' third line, Brandon Sutter, is only days away from making his postseason debut.
What a role reversal.
“It has been really hard for me to deal with,” Staal said Friday. “It's been a tough season, obviously, for both myself on a personal level and for the team. Not going to the playoffs is a situation I don't want to be in again.”
Staal's Hurricanes led the Southeast Division at the season's halfway mark but plummeted in the standings following an injury to goaltender Cam Ward.
The final game of the regular season for the Penguins and Hurricanes marks Staal's return to Consol Energy Center. He played his first six seasons with the Penguins, never missing the playoffs while playing a crucial role in the team's 2009 Stanley Cup run.
He favored playing the remainder of his career in Raleigh, N.C. — Staal turned down the Penguins' contract extension in June to sign a similar deal with Carolina — and isn't sure how the crowd will respond to seeing No. 11 in another team's sweater.
It has become common for former Penguins to receive a video tribute and warm ovation upon their return.
“I have no clue what to expect,” Staal said. “But I hope it's positive. I have a lot of great memories.”
Sutter has made great memories of his own, thriving in a defensive role this season while scoring 11 goals, including five game-winners.
For most of the season, Sutter didn't want to acknowledge the inevitability that he would participate in the playoffs this spring. For a player who has participated in 333 regular-season games without tasting the postseason, remaining cautious felt prudent to the 24-year-old.
“The playoffs are why we play this game,” Sutter said. “I can't wait.”
Staal earned a reputation as a big-game player from his playoff performances.
Staal, 24, has played in 73 playoff games. He scored the two most important goals of his career in Games 4 and 6 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. While his teammates largely floundered last year against the Flyers, Staal had six goals.
Sutter would do well to duplicate such performances.
“I have been wanting to play in the playoffs for a long, long time,” Sutter said.
Staal already feels that way. Still, he isn't questioning his decision to angle for a trade to play with his brother, Eric.
“I do believe in our core group here,” Staal said. “There's an opportunity to have a good team here. We've just got some building to do. It's a learning experience. I'm still learning myself.”
Staal has 10 goals and 30 points in 47 games. A career plus-53 with the Penguins, he is minus-17 this season.
Although he doesn't always like watching playoff games, he will watch his old team.
“I think they should do well,” Staal said. “It will be fun to watch because in the playoffs you never know what might happen.”
He would know.