Penguins finally to face former teammate Jordan Staal

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Penguins will recognize the uniform number right away.

They saw a lot of it the past six seasons, when penalties were being killed and battles were being won.

They certainly will know the face, too, because it was a fixture in their locker room for a half-dozen winters. Heck, some of them were squirting champagne at it less than four years ago.

But that sweater -- the red one with a Carolina Hurricanes crest -- just won't look quite right to the Penguins.

Not on Jordan Staal.

Not immediately, anyway.

The Penguins will play against Staal for the first time when they take on the Hurricanes tonight at PNC Arena and acknowledge that seeing him in a Carolina uniform might be a bit disconcerting.

"I don't know if you ever get totally used to it, but it's part of the game, and you have to find a way to look at him as an opponent," center Sidney Crosby said. "But it's definitely going to be weird."

Staal's ties to the Penguins were severed in June, after he made it clear that he would like to be a teammates of his older brother, Eric, the Hurricanes captain.

The Penguins were so intent on keeping him that general manager Ray Shero offered Staal a 10-year, $60 million contract. When he turned it down, it was clear he would be looking to join the Hurricanes when his contract expired in 2013, so Shero worked out a trade that brought the Penguins Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a first-round draft choice (defenseman Derrick Pouliot).

And while losing Staal might have stung some of his teammates, none seemed to take it personally.

"I don't know why you should feel betrayed," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "This is a business, and a team would trade you just as quick as you'd leave the team."

Personal issues aside, Staal had professional reasons for wanting to change teams.

As long as he remained with the Penguins, he was doomed to remain third on their depth chart at center because Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have the top two spots locked up.

Staal was hockey's best third-line center for much of his time with the Penguins, but it was generally accepted that he would be no worse than the No. 2 guy on almost any other club.

"I think he looked at the big picture and saw [Malkin and Crosby] ahead of him and just wanted to play a bigger role, which he is," Orpik said.

"Once he got a taste of that with the injuries to [Crosby and Malkin the past two seasons], then you take it away from him and he's relegated back to the third line, I think maybe that was uncomfortable for him."

Staal has been centering Carolina's second line, and the Penguins are about to get a first-hand appreciation of the problem he causes for opponents. He is 6 feet 4, 220 pounds and powerful, with an exceptional wingspan that helps him to be one of the game's top defensive forwards.

Crosby described Staal as a player who is "really responsible defensively and can create chances offensively. He's a big guy, strong. He's really a two-way guy. You have to make sure, when you're playing against him, that's you're aware at both ends [of the rink]."

For all their bonds and all they accomplished together, Staal's former teammates don't think they'll have trouble viewing him as an opponent once the game begins.

"Maybe it's weird in warm-ups, like you're looking over and kind of crack a smile at the guy or chuckle at the guy," Orpik said.

"But, once the game starts, I think it disappears pretty quick."

The Penguins have nothing but positive things to say about Staal and what he meant to their franchise. The most revealing indication of how they feel about him might be what isn't said. Or, more to the point, what won't be.

Although on-ice yapping, much of it caustic, between opponents is an integral part of the game, the Penguins insist they won't be trying to get Staal off his game with words.

"No good material," Crosby said. "I'm sure it will be interesting and I'm sure there will be some fun chirps going back and forth."

Even left winger Matt Cooke, long one of the game's leading irritants and Staal's frequent linemate in recent seasons, said he doesn't have anything designed to get under Staal's skin.

"I've got nothing on him," Cooke said. "Even if I did, I wouldn't go that route. I've got too much respect for him."

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Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published February 28, 2013 5:00 AM


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