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Jordan Staal's impact not reflected in his statistics

| Monday, April 4, 2011

Somebody not paying close attention to the Penguins -- one of those types that judges a forward only by goals and points -- a person like that probably wouldn't believe that center Jordan Staal has stepped up in the absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Somebody -- one of those types -- a person like that would be wrong.

"He's taken (on) a lot of responsibility with the guys we have out of the lineup," Penguins winger Craig Adams said Saturday night after Staal recorded a season-best three assists in a must-have 4-2 victory at Florida.

Only a win that night guaranteed the Penguins would maintain control of a race with Tampa Bay for the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed and home-ice advantage in a likely Round 1 Stanley Cup playoff series against the Lightning. Tampa Bay had won Saturday afternoon to temporarily pull within a point, and the Penguins had every reason to feel pressure.

They had lost two consecutive games in regulation. They hadn't scored more than two goals in five prior contests, totaling just five over that span.

A third straight game without a point might not have pushed the Penguins over the edge emotionally, but it would have made for a terrible ending to a week that began with players talking openly of winning the East's top seed.

Amid all that and the possible distraction of Crosby's third straight day of noncontact practice participation, Staal broke out of an offensive funk - five games without a point - to help lift the Penguins to their fourth 100-point season in the past five years.

No teammates were surprised by Staal stepping up at a critical moment. That much is expected of a player who has reputably elevated his level of performance for Stanley Cup playoff games, a player who teammates have started calling "The Big Horse."

"We call him that because he carries a big load," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "He carries a lot of minutes, plays a lot of situations, and does it unbelievably well. He's a big piece of the puzzle."

Actually, Staal is a unique piece of the Penguins' puzzle. Unlike Crosby and Malkin - brilliantly skilled centers who also were lottery picks in previous NHL drafts - his effectiveness isn't always evident by scoring-race related statistics.

An elite defensive forward, Staal had until this season fit perfectly with the Penguins as a shutdown third-line center. Maybe he would have played higher on another team, but his squad employs Crosby and Malkin - two former scoring champions and, when at their peak, arguably the two best players in hockey.

Staal was looked to by teammates and coaches to carry a significant load when Malkin joined Crosby on the injury list Feb. 4, but not in the way some fans expected.

"People said when (defenseman) Sergei Gonchar left that we couldn't replace what he did with one person," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Well, it's the same thing with Jordan. He's got to do what he does and elevate his game. He's never going to turn into those other two guys, and I think sometimes that's what people expect him to do. That's just not his game."

Actually, Staal's offensive game has improved. He has scored 28 points in 40 games after missing the first 39 contests - and all of training camp, plus the whole summer - recovering from various injuries. That .70 points-per-game average is better than his previous-best season average of .60, set each of the past two seasons.

He is playing more than 21 minutes per game, a career-high by nearly 1:30. He is facing top-pairing defensemen for the first time in five NHL seasons. He is starting to rival Orpik as a voice of conscience during difficult times.

He's doing all this at 22, and having come off four surgeries - three on his right foot, one to fix his right hand - in the span of seven months dating to last May.

Some players that miss the training time Staal did last summer aren't themselves until the next season's camp.

"He's done a remarkable job," coach Dan Bylsma said.

"If you're looking for Jordan to be Sidney Crosby, you're never going to see it. He, however, can beat Sidney Crosby straight up with the way Jordan Staal plays. That's what he's been - it may not be flashy, but he's a force down the middle and at both ends of the rink, and his penalty killing is outstanding. That, in and of itself, is something that's been a real factor for us being able to win games against good opposition."

Additional Information:

Hardly stalled

Quietly, Penguins center Jordan Staal has nearly matched or bettered his career averages since returning from a 39-game absence to open the season. A look at how he has done while handling top-center responsibilities for the first time in five NHL seasons. The first number is for 2010-11; the second is his career average prior to the current season:

Goals per game .25, .26

Points per game .70, .51

Average minutes 21:19, 21.34

Face-off percentage 46.7, 47.4


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