To play is the thing for the Penguins' Staal, Michalek

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The drill was pretty basic.

Jordan Staal was given the puck along the right-wing boards and was charged with protecting it, no matter what conditioning coach Mike Kadar did to him.

So Kadar shoved Staal. Drove his shoulder into him. Bounced Staal off the glass.

And Staal smiled.

Then smiled again. And smiled some more.

Not because he necessarily enjoyed the punishment he was absorbing. It's just that, after being unable to play for so long, anything that even simulated part of a hockey game was a good time.

"It's just nice to be out there and battling, having that competitiveness again," Staal said after his workout at the RBC Center in Raleigh Saturday. "There's no better feeling."

Well, doing it in an actual game probably is a bit better, and Staal, who has missed the first 12 games of the season while recovering from a foot infection, should be reminded of that in the next few days.

He and defenseman Zbynek Michalek, out since Oct. 11 because of what is believed to be a shoulder injury, look like pretty good bets to be in uniform when the Penguins visit Dallas Wednesday for the start of a three-game swing through the Western Conference.

Considering how things had been going for the Penguins before their 3-0 victory at Carolina Saturday, there can't be much downside to adding a top-six forward and a top-four defenseman to their personnel mix.

Especially when those guys figure to be highly motivated after watching their teammates sputter and struggle so much lately.

"I feel like I'm letting guys down, even though I know I'm not 100 percent, and it probably wouldn't be the smartest idea to go out there and play," Michalek said. "But I feel really bad. I know everybody is trying their best for the team to win, and I would like to help, too."

How much either of them will be able to contribute immediately is hard to say. Both acknowledge that they likely will need at least a little time to get into a rhythm and might be given a somewhat reduced workload at first.

"I'm sure I'll get eased into it a little bit," Staal said. "Sometimes, the coach says you're going to play 10 [minutes], and you end up playing 20.

"It just depends on the game. Obviously, I don't think I'll be rushing in to [play] 25 minutes the first game."

Once he's back, however, Staal does not plan to beg off any assignment, even a particularly taxing one like penalty-killing.

"I wouldn't want to avoid anything," he said. "I'm going to want to play everything. When I get out there, I'm sure I'll want to be out there every shift."

The coaching staff's primary concern of late has been getting a proper conditioning base in place for him, and Staal said he can't gauge exactly where he stands in that regard.

"It's always hard to tell, until you start playing," he said. "Obviously, when you don't work out for four months, it's going to be tough, but with practices and everything, I feel really solid, really good. I feel comfortable."

Even more important, his foot seems to be pretty much back to the way it was before a tendon in it was sliced and a stubborn infection set in.

"My foot feels really good," Staal said. "The strength has come back a lot. My balance on my right leg has been really good.

"Everything feels really comfortable."

Conditioning isn't as much of a concern for Michalek. After all, he was able to train during summer and the preseason and participate in a few games before being hurt on a check by Rod Pelley of New Jersey.

"I've been lucky that I've been skating for a while now, and I feel really good on the ice," he said.

"We did some battling drills, some skating drills on the ice with the coaches the last few days, and I think my conditioning is where it needs to be. I feel good."

Michalek suspects that he's "probably going to feel" the injury for a few weeks, but does not anticipate any effects that would have a significant impact on his game.

"I've been injured before, and I've always recovered well," he said. "Hopefully, it's not going to be different this time."

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at . Dave Molinari: .


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