Penguins' Staal returns today after 15-game absence

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Jordan Staal stuck in the NHL mere weeks after his 18th birthday in large part because he displayed a level of defensive excellence some centers never reach.

Now in his sixth season, Staal, just 23, might have raised his offensive play to the same level.

"He's so responsible in the defensive end," Penguins teammate Matt Cooke said. "As he matures, he's become more of a complete offensive player. He relied a lot on pure strength and speed initially in his career, and now he has a better understanding for the offensive part of the game.

"He's shown that when he's played this year."

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Penguins vs. Winnipeg Jets, 2:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
  • TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ondrej Pavelec for Jets.
  • Penguins: Are 1-1 vs. Winnipeg, both on road. ... Are 6-4 in past 10 home games. ... Six of past nine games have been decided in OT or shootout.
  • Jets: Are 5-5 in past 10 road games. ... Had two power-play goals Thursday in 3-2 shootout win against Washington after going seven games without one. ... Mark Stuart ranked second in NHL before games Friday with 134 blocked shots.
  • Hidden stat: Before winning Thursday, the Jets had been involved in seven games in a row where both teams combined for three goals, going 3-4 in that stretch.

Staal is third on the team with 15 goals and eighth with 21 points despite missing 20 games. When the Penguins play Winnipeg at 2 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center, Staal is scheduled to return from a 15-game absence caused by a left knee injury

He primarily will play with Cooke and Pascal Dupuis as his wingers, although coach Dan Bylsma said he might make a switch at times to give Staal's line more offensive punch. Bylsma said Staal will play upward of 15 minutes, including time on the No. 2 power-play unit, but might not step right back into the physically demanding role of being one of the top penalty-killers.

With center Sidney Crosby still out because of a neck injury and symptoms associated with a concussion, Staal's return could take some pressure off center Evgeni Malkin -- not that Malkin and wingers Chris Kunitz and James Neal have wilted in the face of pressure to produce despite extra attention from opponents.

In the 15 games Staal missed because of the knee injury, Malkin's line has produced 22 of the Penguins' 36 goals. Going into Friday, Malkin led the NHL with 62 points and ranked third with 29 goals. Neal was just behind with 28 goals.

Staal was reluctant to thrust himself into a situation where he will feel pressure to score.

"You've definitely seen [Malkin's] line doing a great job," Staal said. "They're putting a lot of numbers up.

"The guys have been playing unbelievably all the way down the lineup. We're winning games. We've got some scorers, for sure, all throughout the lineup. I'm just another piece."

Bylsma wasn't as humble on behalf of Staal.

"I think this year better than any, he's understood exactly how big and strong he is skating-wise and physically, and that has led to better offensive opportunities for him," the coach said.

Although he's perhaps playing smarter offensively, at 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, Staal doesn't have to play a finesse game.

"He can overpower defenders, and they can't get the puck off of him," Bylsma said. "He's done that, I think, significantly better than he has in the past. You've seen him hang onto the puck longer. You've seen him go wide and use his speed, size and strength to overpower people and has gotten to the net that way.

"[In the] offensive zone, he hangs onto the puck using his body to keep possession, move into offensive areas and score goals. He adds offense I don't think we've even seen him come close to in the past. I think that's something he's realized and then used to his advantage for offensive situations."

None of that has come at the expense of his base -- defensive responsibility.

"He's so good in all areas of the game," said Winnipeg center Kyle Wellwood, who is expected to return today after missing a game Thursday night in Washington because of illness. "He takes on a big chunk of their role defensively, and, of course, with his strength he can score around the net."

Staal doesn't expect his knee to be an issue. He has spent the past couple of days practicing with the Penguins and working more on things such as timing and conditioning.

"The knee feels really strong, and everything feels really good," he said.

Also on Staal's agenda -- avoiding the injury bug.

At one time, he was a team ironman. He missed just one game over his first four seasons. Then foot and hand injuries wiped out the first half of the 2010-11 season, and he missed five games the first half of this season with assorted minor problems.

Then came the medial collateral knee ligament injury Jan. 6 in a leg-tangling collision with former Penguins winger Mike Rupp of the New York Rangers.

"There's no bad blood," Staal said of Rupp, adding that he "is a great guy. I really respect him as a player."

Most recently, Staal left practice Thursday to get stitches near the right side of his upper lip after taking an inadvertent stick to the face.

"It's been tough," Staal said. "But those things happen, I guess."

For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Shelly Anderson: , 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published February 11, 2012 5:00 AM


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