Penguins find silver lining with Crosby, Malkin out
Something good did come out of January for the Penguins, who played most of the month without center Sidney Crosby (concussion) and the final weeks of it without center Evgeni Malkin (sinus infection).
That "something" is center Jordan Staal, who made his season debut in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day and has assumed No. 1 center duties for the past few weeks.
Admittedly, Staal said his game "is not quite there yet," adding that his conditioning "is pretty darn close."
The injuries to Crosby and Malkin were a blessing for Staal, who had spent only a couple of weeks practicing with teammates from mid-May to the day after Christmas. Three surgeries -- two to correct an infected foot, one to repair a broken hand -- forced Staal to recover and rehabilitate at the expense of training.
There was reason to believe his months before the Stanley Cup playoffs would be spent playing into form, but that luxury was absent with Crosby and Malkin out.
"I basically stepped into the fire with all those minutes," said Staal, who has played at least 19 minutes in 10 of his 13 games and at least 20 minutes in eight of the past nine.
"I definitely don't mind," Staal said. "The more ice time the better, that's the way I like it. This has definitely sped up the process."
The most famous quote associated with Staal comes from general manager Ray Shero, who once said, "You win Stanley Cups with Jordan Staal."
Surely the Penguins will need a healthy Crosby and Malkin to regain that silver chalice. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury continuing at this Vezina Trophy-like level will help, too.
However, as last postseason proved, without Staal being able to consistently contribute his rare combination of puck possession and exemplary defense, the Penguins are just another team.
Injuries have been a problem for the Penguins all season. But Staal's fast-track return to form with the two superstars hurt has been a pleasant byproduct.
BY THE NUMBERS
Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson's fight Wednesday night with the Islanders' Rick DiPietro was the 10th in franchise history involving the goalie. A look at other netminders to receive majors for fighting:
Nov. 22, 1969: 6:53, 2nd period — Al Smith (vs. Earl Heiskala, Flyers) W, 5-3
Dec. 17, 1969: 18:22, 1st — Smith (vs. Terry Harper, Canadiens) L, 5-2
Oct. 23, 1970: 6:42, 3rd — Smith (vs. Tony Featherstone, Seals) W, 3-1
Nov. 28, 1970: 20:00, 2nd — Smith (vs. Phil Myre, Canadiens) L, 5-1
April 4, 1971: 18:43, 1st — Smith (vs. Noel Picard, Blues) T, 1-1
Oct. 27, 1976: 7:57, 3rd — Dunc Wilson (vs. Danny Gare, Sabres) T, 4-4
April 9, 1977*: 14:14, 1st — Denis Herron (vs. "Tiger" Williams, Maple Leafs) L, 5-2
Feb. 29, 1984: 6:48, 2nd — Herron (vs. "Tiger" Williams, Canucks) L, 9-5
May 16, 1995*: 13:14, 3rd — Ken Wregget (vs. Dale Hunter, Capitals) W, 7-1
* — postseason
Source: Bob Grove, Penguins historian
EYE ON THE ENEMY
An NHL Insider offers insight on the Penguins' opponents for the week ahead:
Home, 7 p.m. today
"Overall performance has been up and down because of average defensive-zone play. The Sabres are expected to be "sellers" before the trade deadline, and players are looking to keep their jobs — so expect high energy."
Away, 12:30 p.m. Sunday
"Their skilled players are still adjusting to the new defensive mindset. It has resulted in some rough nights trying to hold leads, but they have improved their turnover ratio."
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Home, 7 p.m. Tuesday
"Defensively, they have been fragile and the goaltenders have been inconsistent. They play like a different team when scoring first, which gives their skilled forwards confidence."
Penguins players share their thoughts on Dan Bylsma's COACHING STYLE:
Matt Cooke: "He is a teacher of the game above everything else. He understands the game, downloads it quickly. He's willing and able to change on the fly, which I think is the strength of our team."
Zbynek Michalek: "He is easy to talk to, a good communicator. He tries to talk to players about how they feel, even off the ice. For me, if a coach is talking to his players and is interested in what's going on in their lives, that makes you want to play for him more."
Mike Rupp: "Energy comes to mind. Dan's upbeat. I was going to say aggressive, but that can be taken out of context. He's aggressive with his energy and positive attitude. He wears it on his sleeve. He's hungry to come to the rink each day, and that rubs off on us."
ONES TO WATCH
Players to keep an eye on this week:
Nathan Gerbe, Sabres center: He is a small, fast player with a high skill level. He can be an entertaining player if given room to create.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals center: He has had an off year compared to his standard, but he drives their offense. Alex Ovechkin's game, most nights, depends on Backstrom.
Jakub Voracek, Blue Jackets right wing: He is a young power forward that skates well and plays with an edge. He has established a consistent offensive game with his physical attributes and size.
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