Penguins Locker Room: Staal returns to play with a solid effort


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The last thing on his list, Jordan Staal said, was faceoffs. He wanted a little more time to work on taking draws.

Winning 11 of 18 would seem to indicate he had enough preparation going into Saturday night's Winter Classic. That went for more than faceoffs for the big two-way Penguins center, who played a strong game in a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field.

Staal's season debut intersected with the NHL's big-stage night. He missed the Penguins' first 39 games -- nearly half the 2010-11 regular season -- because of consecutive foot and hand injuries.

He swore after a 3-1 loss to the Capitals that the timing was a coincidence. Mostly.

"To be honest, it happened really quick," Staal said. "I got the clearance to start really pushing it, and it was in the back of my mind that I could be able to play in this game. The last two or three days, I started really pushing it, and I still felt really good. I decided why not, and I thought it went really well."

Staal primarily centered the second line between Pascal Dupuis and Evgeni Malkin and killed penalties alongside Dupuis. He finished with a relatively modest 14 minutes, 38 seconds of ice time, had two shots and three hits and skated with authority.

"It was special to see the big [No.] 11 out there," Dupuis said. "I think he played a great game. He looked like he didn't miss a beat out there."

Staal started the game like gangbusters his first couple of shifts, dishing out a hit on the Capitals' Matt Hendricks along the boards and taking a nice feed from Malkin, only to miss the net.

"When you've got that much adrenaline going, you're going to feel good either way, but even in the second and third, I still felt really good," Staal said. "The hand felt great, the foot felt great. It just would have been nice to win."

He didn't specifically line up Hendricks to see how contact in a real game felt.

"I was just kind of going with it. It wasn't really a test," Staal said. "You're just kind of going with the flow. If the hit comes, you're going to take it."

He felt some rust when he missed the shot early. He also failed to score on a good chance late in the third period after the Penguins had pulled goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury ... a big, sweeping shot.

"I had a few chances," Staal said. "The timing's very tough to get right your first game back."

Staal, 22, last season was a finalist for the Selke Award, which goes to the NHL's top two-way forward. The Penguins topped the league standings -- they were tied for first in the overall standings going into Saturday's games with 53 points -- without him, but there's little question they are better with him back.

He had missed only one regular-season game in his first four seasons before running into trouble this season.

Staal's problem started April 30 when the skate of Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban sliced through the top of Staal's skate and lacerated a tendon on the top of his right foot in Game 1 of the Penguins' second-round playoff series. He had surgery but missed just two games, returning for Game 4 in what turned out to be a seven-game series loss to the Canadians.

The tendon healed, but Staal needed two more operations because of a stubborn infection in the foot.

He returned to practice in October and was set to play Nov. 3 at Dallas, but two days before that got hit in the right hand with a shot in practice. He had surgery the next day to repair a broken bone.

The six weeks it was estimated he would miss stretched to 81/2, with the Penguins dismissing rumors and concerns about a major setback.

Last Sunday in Ottawa, Staal joined his teammates on the ice for the first time in a morning skate. By Saturday's morning skate, he was getting more comfortable with faceoffs and making sure he was ready to play.

"They weren't bad," Staal said of his faceoffs in the game. "Today was the first time I really tried any faceoffs."

Imagine what his game will look like after he has had a chance to play several games.


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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