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Staal's 100th punctuates Pens' victory

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011

In previous seasons, Sidney Crosby recorded his first NHL point and Evgeni Malkin his first goal against the New Jersey Devils .

Jordan Staal joined his fellow centers by reaching his own milestone against the Devils in the Penguins' 4-1 win Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.

With his fourth and fifth goals this season, Staal reached 100 in his career.

His reaction to the achievement was befitting his personality: a no-big-deal shake of his head while cracking a half smile.

Staal might even agree with a small but vocal group of detractors who would suggest it took him long enough to hit the century mark -- 379 regular-season games.

"I don't think he worries about those (critics)," said Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz, whose power-play goal in the third period was the game-winner.

Those critics have suggested that Staal doesn't do enough to earn the $4 million he annually costs against the Penguins' salary cap. They have argued that Staal, a former second overall pick, should be as dazzling as Crosby and Malkin.

But they're not playing -- haven't been for most of this calendar year -- and over that span Staal has subtly elevated his offensive game.

As left winger Matt Cooked noted, a closer examination of Staal's 10 games this season shows his improved patience with the puck on his stick, an increased confidence in the faceoff circle, and a steadying progression as a possible net-front presence on the power play.

Since returning last season after missing the first 39 games because of injuries to his right foot and hand, Staal has scored 16 goals and recorded 38 points in 52 games.

"He spent a lot of time off during last year, and any time you do that your timing is not there and it takes you a long time to get back (to form)," Cooke said. "He's been a dominant player for us this year, and it's not always going to show on the score sheet, but he's the one who does it all for our team."

Staal finished this game with 22 minutes and 14 seconds of ice time -- his fifth game of more than 21 minutes -- and finished with five shots, three hits and a takeaway.

His seven takeaways are tied with defenseman Kris Letang for the team lead, and his 22 hits has him positioned even with Kunitz and forward Craig Adams.

With eight points he is tied for second with Letang -- one off the nine recorded by right wing James Neal, who added his eighth goal in yesterday's victory.

Not that coach Dan Bylsma, or anybody associated with the Penguins, makes the mistake of assessing Staal's effectiveness based on statistics such as goals and points.

Bylsma often notes that Staal makes habit of exhausting opponents -- routinely with stifling positioning in the defensive and neutral zones, and more recently with dominant down-low puck possession in the offensive end.

The Penguins (6-2-2, 14 points) are on a three-game winning streak, and Staal has scored three goals over that span while also playing more than 21 minutes in each contest.

Bylsma hopes that at some point this season he will dress Crosby (concussion), Malkin (sore right knee) and Staal in, say, three straight games. That hasn't happened since Round 2 of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, a series that featured Staal playing the final four games just a few days after surgery to repair a severed tendon in his right foot.

It has been that long since a Penguins team showed as much promise as this one, which has surrendered just one power-play goal, features forward depth to rival its envious elite defense corps, and has a goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury who is 5-2-0 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

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