PITTSBURGH— Jordan Staal was limping only slightly as he left Consol Energy Center following the morning skate Saturday, and that might have been the best news possible for the injury-hobbled Pittsburgh Penguins.
While coach Dan Bylsma said it’s still too early to tell how long Staal will be out with a left knee injury, the fact that he isn’t on crutches and is walking on his own likely is a positive sign.
Normally, a player who sustains a serious knee injury – a torn anterior cruciate ligament – isn’t as able to maneuver as well as Staal did only 12 hours or so after being hurt. If the injury is to the medial collateral ligament, Staal’s absence could be a relatively short one.
However, if there is swelling involved, as there often is with such an injury, doctors may wait a day or two before ordering an MRI exam that will determine exactly what is wrong.
“You saw him leave the game with an apparent knee injury,” Bylsma said Saturday. “At this point in time, it’s too early to tell the significance of the injury. Maybe in the next few days we’ll have an update on what the timetable will be for that.”
Staal, a skilled two-way center enjoying one of the best offensive seasons of his career, appeared to be in significant pain after absorbing a knee-to-knee hit from friend and former teammate Mike Rupp late in the New York Rangers’ 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Friday night. Rupp drew a kneeing penalty.
For a team already reeling with injuries – the Penguins are currently without superstar center Sidney Crosby and ace defenseman Kris Letang – Staal’s injury initially looked to be another major setback. It also looked to be a major setback as the Penguins scramble to maintain their Eastern Conference playoff positioning.
The Penguins (21-14-4), who were atop the Eastern Conference standings as late as Dec. 8, went into Saturday night’s home game against the New Jersey Devils (22-16-2) in sixth place in the conference – and only two points removed from being out of a playoff spot.
While forward Dustin Jeffrey appears to be close to returning after missing all but six games this season with a knee injury, the Penguins aren’t close to being healthy.
Letang, who last played on Nov. 26, resumed skating only Friday and is not yet ready to practice.
Crosby, the player who makes everything go in Pittsburgh, is sidelined for the second time this season with concussion-related injuries and there is no speculation when he might return. The Penguins remain hopeful he can play again this season but, since he left the lineup Dec. 5 after playing in eight games, Crosby has been restricted to light exercise.
Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Richard Park and Tyler Kennedy also have missed more than a few games this season for a team that is 11-11-1 since it began the season with a 10-3-3 record.
A year ago, the Penguins preserved to put together a 106-point season even while being without Crosby (Concussion) and Staal (foot injury, broken hand) for half a season and Malkin for the final two months and the playoffs. This time, they are below .500 (5-6) since Crosby left the lineup -- a possible sign that the recurring injuries might make it difficult for them to repeat last season's success.
“I don’t sense the team being down or there being dips in our team because of the injuries,” Bylsma said, pointing to the effort expended as the Penguins outshot the Rangers 38-21 on Friday yet still lost. “I think we’ll keep playing games exactly like that for another 42, 43 games and we’ll take our record.”
While Staal missed five games earlier, he has 15 goals and 6 assists in 34 games and is on pace to top the 29 goals he had as a rookie in 2006-07. The Penguins also will miss his scoring touch against the Devils; Staal has nine career goals against them, two of them during a 4-1 win on Oct. 22.
“You’re talking about a guy who does a lot of different things in a lot of different areas,” offensively, defensively, penalty kill-wise especially, faceoffs, going against other teams’ top lines,” Bylsma said. “In addition to that, he has scored a nice clip of goals and (is) adding punch to our team in that regard. It’s a big part of our team right now that’s not going to be in the lineup.”
Pascal Dupuis, who had never played center before being temporarily shifted there from right wing earlier this season, will fill in for Staal against the Devils and perhaps the stretch of games that follow. The Penguins play another set of back-to-back games Tuesday (Ottawa) and Wednesday (at Washington) before playing at Florida on Friday and Tampa Bay on Jan. 15.
Park missed nine games with a broken foot, then returned Friday only to get cut under the right eye. The injury will not keep him out against New Jersey.