Jordan Staal is regarded as one of the top defensive centers in the NHL. His ability to shut down the opposing team's top scoring threats has earned him a spot among the game's most pesky checking line players.
In this wildly entertaining Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Penguins and Flyers that will extend to a Game 6 Sunday, Staal is making a strong case to eliminate "defensive" from that description.
Attention 2012 Stanley Cup playoff fans: Staal is the NHL's leading scorer in the playoffs. He notched his sixth goal to tie the score in the second period in Friday night's Game 5 at Consol Energy Center. Then a few minutes later, his hard-working line produced the winning goal on a slap shot from Tyler Kennedy for a 3-2 victory that kept hope alive for a dramatic series comeback.
"I'm just playing my game," Staal said. "I'm not just trying to score goals. I'm trying to play the way I've been playing all year. I've been fortunate to get a few."
The Penguins have desperately needed Staal to produce offense in this series. With the Flyers keeping 50-goal scorer Evgeni Malkin in check -- he has two goals in five games -- Staal, Kennedy and Matt Cooke have emerged as something approaching a top scoring line rather than a checking line.
"I think in the playoffs everyone has to help out," Kennedy said. "I think we're trying to help out as much as we can. If that's offensively, that's good. We have to play our way, getting pucks deep and shooting as many pucks as we can on net."
The tying goal was a thing of beauty, and it came as a result of a long shift from the defensive pairing. Gassed and in possession of the puck behind his net, Kris Letang set up a stretch play and slapped a long pass to Kennedy near center ice. Kennedy deftly tipped the puck to open space in the Flyers zone.
Staal took the pass in stride, came in on a two-on-one and wristed a shot past Ilya Bryzgalov to knot the score at 2-2.
The Penguins attempt the stretch play a lot, but generating a two-on-one is rare.
"It's going to work, but it's not going to work perfectly like that he's going to get a two-on-one," Letang said. "It might just go off the wall and get in the zone. It worked out perfectly tonight."
The winning goal, scored 3 1/2 minutes later, came shortly after a line change. Kennedy jumped into the play off the bench, found himself unguarded and rifled a shot past Bryzgalov.
The inspired play of Staal's line did not go unnoticed by coach Dan Bylsma.
"Jordan Staal, in particular, his play has come up big," Bylsma said. "Last game he came up with three goals. He had the game-winning goal. Tonight, this was a game, in a lot of ways, there were a lot of emotions. We were down. We needed a play. We needed someone to step up. Jordan Staal's goal was a big play.
"The third goal, it was a great shift change. [Kennedy] steps onto the ice and gets the game-winning goal. That line, in particular, came up big when we needed someone to step up."
The Flyers have taken notice as well.
"Both Cooke and Kennedy are both capable of making plays and they can all shoot the puck very well," Flyers defenseman Matt Carle said. "I don't think it's a line we overlook at all. They're a good line at cycling the puck and once they get it deep, they're all good at protecting the puck and making plays."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published April 21, 2012 12:15 AM