MONTREAL -- Jordan Staal isn't the biggest name on the Penguins' injured list.
He isn't even the biggest name center there.
But he is the one who figures to be the first to get back in their lineup.
Staal, who has missed the past 14 games because of a knee injury, will sit out the game with Montreal tonight at the Bell Centre, but practiced with his teammates Monday and should be back in uniform within "five to 10 days," according to coach Dan Bylsma.
The same, Bylsma said, is true of defenseman Simon Despres, who also is recovering from a knee injury.
"They've made the next step in their rehab, return[ing] to practice with the team," Bylsma said.
Despres figures to make his comeback with the American Hockey League team in Wilkes-Barre because the Penguins already have seven healthy defensemen on their major league roster.
Staal, though, stands to take on a significant workload when he returns.
"That's a pretty darned good player to be inserted to your lineup," Bylsma said.
Staal said after the workout that his knee "feels good," but hinted that he's not completely confident that his knee is quite ready for the rigors of the game.
Asked what hurdles must be cleared before he's ready to resume playing, Staal responded, "Just mentally, being prepared for the game and knowing that everything's going to hold up."
Nonetheless, he said he is "not far" from playing.
"It's feeling really good," he said. "It's just a matter of time."
Bylsma, at the behest of assistant coach Tony Granato, kicked off practice Monday by having the forwards and defensemen play opposite-handed.
That meant Evgeni Malkin was, for a few minutes, a right-handed shot, while Kris Letang became a lefty.
It was a good way to lighten the mood after a disappointing 5-2 loss in New Jersey the previous day.
"I certainly like the atmosphere with some of the new faces [injured players participating in practice] and some of the lack of skill with the wrong-handed stick game," Bylsma said.
Not that everyone looked entirely uncomfortable with the switch.
Sidney Crosby, for example, uses a pretty straight blade, which comes in handy in such situations.
"Sid has an unfair advantage," Bylsma said. "Because his stick is basically the same for a left-hander or a right-hander."
Go into most NHL cities where the local team is struggling, and you probably will hear about it on talk radio.
Likely turns up in the conversation at some bars, as well.
Maybe even at the occasional lunch counter.
Come to this town, however, and one need not officially be in the country before hearing complaints about the miserable season Montreal is having.
During the course of routine questioning by a customs officer Monday at Trudeau International Airport, it came out that a visitor was in town for the Penguins-Canadiens game.
The customs officer, after verifying that no one was waiting in line, spent a minute or so bemoaning the state of the Canadiens, punctuating his disappointment and disgust with their season with a series of grimaces.
He -- like so many Montreal partisans -- is particularly displeased with the work of center Scott Gomez, who has gone 52 games without a goal. Sunday was the first anniversary of his most recent one, an occasion some in the Bell Centre crowd marked with choruses of "Bonne Fete," or Happy Birthday.
"The Seven Million Dollar Player," the customs officer said repeatedly, shaking his head each time.
Actually, it's a bit worse than he realized. Gomez's cap hit is $7,357,143.
The Penguins are getting almost as many power plays this season as they did in 2010-11 -- they are averaging 3.74 through 53 games, compared to 3.79 through all of last season -- but it's generally accepted that officials are being more lenient, allowing obstruction-related infractions that might have been called earlier in the season to go unpenalized.
"I don't necessarily think the play has gotten cleaner," Bylsma said. "There are just fewer power-play opportunities out there for every team.
"Sometimes, no-call is the safest call [for referees]. Going into games, you know that."
First Published February 7, 2012 5:00 AM