PITTSBURGH -- Leave it to a guy who learned how to play hockey as a kid skating on his dad's homemade outdoor rink to add even more drama to the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
Penguins center Jordan Staal will make his season debut Saturday night at Heinz Field when Pittsburgh takes on the Washington Capitals in the NHL's most hyped regular- season game -- one that ironically is played out of doors, just like the games of Staal's childhood.
Staal has not played since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Montreal on May 12, 2010.
He needed surgery to repair a severed tendon in his right foot, but that led to a pair of infections in that same foot. He finally started skating with the Penguins in late October and was due back for a game in Dallas on Nov. 3, but he broke his right hand two days earlier.
Staal had 49 points and was a plus-19 in 82 games last season. Until this season he had missed only one regular-season game in his career, which began in 2006.
"I feel ready to go. The coaches think the same thing," Staal said following the Penguins morning skate at Consol Energy Center. "It's kind of funny how it falls leading right into this game, but it's very exciting and I'm very happy to be back in the lineup."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said the decision to play Staal was made before the morning skate, but it did help that the Winter Classic was pushed back to 8 p.m. on Saturday night because of afternoon rain in the area. The extra practice gave Staal a chance to take some faceoffs, which was the only thing he hadn't done throughout his rehab.
"The decision, I guess, is more dramatic because it's the Winter Classic, but we approached the decision as if this was any other game," Bylsma said. "If this was a game in Buffalo today would he play? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, so that is why he is playing this game.
"He's had a tough go of it, some tough injuries and he's had to battle through that," Bylsma added. "He's going to feel probably not 100 percent confident about this game, but the first one has to come sometime. It just happens to be on the first and at Heinz Field."
Staal will play center with Evgeni Malkin on his wing, but his minutes will likely be limited because it's his first game, Bylsma said. Staal said he feels he has all of his strength back in his hand.
"I haven't played in eight months, but hopefully we still have that chemistry and play well together," Staal said of playing with Malkin. "I'm not sure what is going to happen toward ice time."
Bylsma would not say who is coming out of the lineup, saying it would be a game-time decision.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs," Staal said. "About almost three times I was ready to play and then it got taken away from me, and now that it's finally here it almost doesn't seem real. I know as soon as I get on that ice and play a couple of shifts it'll really sink in. I'm really excited for it."
His teammates were thrilled to learn he was coming back. In fact, Pascal Dupuis didn't believe it when a few media members told him, so he had to interrupt a conversation Staal was having with a member of the Penguins equipment staff to ask him directly.
Staal nodded his head approvingly.
"He's not a depth player; he's a top player, a superstar," Dupuis said. "He makes a difference when he's healthy and he will make a difference coming back tonight."
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