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Around the East: Pens' Staal happy for extra time

by Dan Rosen /
Ready or not, Pittsburgh center Jordan Staal had to start playing his normal 20-22 minutes per game as soon as Sidney Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion.
After taking a couple of games to get his timing back, Staal is not just playing the minutes, he's earning them.
Staal, who missed the first 39 games of the season after foot and hand surgeries, has 2 goals and 3 assists in the last two games. It's not a coincidence that his production has equated to Penguins' victories, their first two with Crosby out of the lineup.
"I've been jumping into 20-minute games, which I obviously love," Staal told on Monday after the team's workout in preparation for its game Tuesday against Detroit at CONSOL Energy Center. "The more ice time the better. With Sid out, I'm definitely used more on the power play, more offensively. It's tough because you can never replace a player like Sid, but [with] our team different players have stepped up in the last couple of games."

Staal didn't hesitate to answer when he was asked if he was ready to play such big minutes so soon after returning to the lineup.
"You ask any player and they'll play as much as the coach wants to put them out there," he said. "There's no better way to get back in there than to just jump in and see what happens."
What happened was the added minutes and added responsibility gave Staal the chance to get his timing and strength back much quicker than he would have if he were playing 13 or 14 minutes a night.
Now his legs feel stronger, his hands feel quicker and his injuries don't seem like a big issue anymore.
"Timing comes with it, but getting used to systems again, understanding where to be, is a big part," Staal said. "It starts coming more natural after a while than if you're skating and thinking about where you should be. My legs and hands are starting to come back a lot stronger, too."
Staal still feels he has a ways to go. Now it's all about consistency.
"When you've played 40 games you can be ready for every game easily," Staal said. "For me, now it's a matter of the how the next 10 games go -- if I stay consistent maybe at that point I can say I'm 100 percent."
Now let's take a trip around the conference to see what has changed over the last week. The teams, as usual, are listed in order of where they stand as of Tuesday morning:

 Philadelphia Flyers (29-11-5, 63 points)

The Flyers have won eight of 12 since Chris Pronger went out with a broken foot on Dec. 15, but they might have to play one more game without the towering defenseman. Pronger is reportedly scheduled to see a doctor on Wednesday to hopefully get cleared to play Thursday against Ottawa. In the meantime, the Flyers welcome Washington to Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. The Flyers are coming off a 10-game stretch in which nine of the games were on the road. They went 7-3.

 Boston Bruins (25-13-7, 57 points)

The Bruins have been scoring in some serious bunches. Zdeno Chara even had his first career hat trick in Monday's 7-0 win against Carolina. Boston has scored six or more goals in three of its last four games. The lone blemish during the stretch is a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh. But considering the Bruins scored four goals in the final three and a half minutes of a game against the Penguins on Jan. 10, well, it's hard to criticize scoring only twice in a loss. It'll be interesting to see the response they get Tuesday from the Hurricanes in Raleigh.

 Tampa Bay Lightning (26-15-5, 57 points)

Yes, they are third in the East right now and first in the Southeast Division, but no, the Lightning do not like the way they've played in three of their last four games. Sure, they loved the 3-0 win against Washington, but what about losses of 6-3 and 5-2 to the last-place Devils that were sandwiched around Dwayne Roloson's impressive shutout against the Capitals? No, not so much. The 6-4 loss to Carolina on Sunday didn't help either. Tampa has given up a combined 25 goals in its past four losses and scored just 8 goals in its past four wins. Talk about hit or miss defense and goaltending.

 Pittsburgh Penguins (28-14-4, 60 points)

Tuesday brings a big game for the Penguins, who have won back-to-back games without the concussed Sidney Crosby. Staal said Pittsburgh's captain has been around the team a lot, except for on the road. Detroit comes to town beaten and battered yet still pretty darn good, and the Penguins say there's something special about playing the Red Wings because of the recent history between the teams. "There's no question it's a big game for our team and we're excited about it," Staal said.

 Washington Capitals (25-14-7, 57 points)

The Capitals start a three-game road trip Tuesday in Philadelphia. They haven't played three in a row on the road since late October. They're just 9-9-2 away from Verizon Center. Nicklas Backstrom has gone 20 straight games without a goal. He was bumped off the top line in Sunday's 3-1 win against Ottawa by rookie Marcus Johansson, who played a season-high 22:16. Johansson has scored 3 goals in the last four games. Alexander Semin remains out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. Toss in Eric Fehr's shoulder injury and the Capitals are without two of their top three right wings.

 Montreal Canadiens (26-17-3, 55 points)

The Canadiens have won two in a row and five of their last six to pull within two points of first place in the Northeast Division. Each of those wins was by a single goal, including two in overtime and one in a shootout. P.K. Subban celebrated the OT winner in Monday's 5-4 win over Calgary. The problem is the Habs were up 4-0 roughly halfway through the game, but gave up four goals in a span of 9:30 bridging the second and third periods. Carey Price had to replace Alex Auld early in the third period, but the Habs clamped down and allowed only four more shots. Four of Montreal's next five games are on the road.

 New York Rangers (26-18-3, 55 points)

The Rangers did not answer properly after playing arguably their best game of the season in a 1-0 win over Vancouver last Thursday. They've lost back-to-back games since, including 3-2 decisions to Montreal and Philadelphia. At some point grinding it out won't work anymore and they'll have to get some production from Marian Gaborik, who was benched for stretches in Sunday's game and played just 12:45. Gaborik hasn't scored in eight straight games. The Rangers haven't scored more than two goals in any of their nine games this month.

 Atlanta Thrashers (23-18-7, 53 points)

The Thrashers needed a furious comeback and a successful shootout to finally get back in the win column Monday night after four straight losses. They erased a 2-0 deficit by scoring a pair of goals 44 seconds apart in the final two minutes of regulation. Bryan Little, who had the first goal and assisted on the second one, scored in the shootout along with Alexander Burmistrov. Ondrej Pavelec stopped two of three shots in the shootout for his 16th win. Atlanta doesn't play again until Thursday against Tampa Bay. Three of their final four games before the break are at home.

 Carolina Hurricanes (22-17-6, 50 points)

On one hand the Hurricanes have earned 16 points in their past 11 games. On the other, Carolina allowed seven unanswered goals in a debacle Monday in Boston. They simply got smoked by the Bruins, who scored two goals on five shots in less than 12 minutes to chase Cam Ward from the net. It was Carolina's worst loss since an 8-1 drubbing in Philadelphia on Nov. 11. But, the loss doesn't erase the good work Carolina has completed in the last three weeks to stay in the playoff race. The 'Canes are 7-2-2 over their last 11 games. And, they have the Bruins at home Tuesday night.

 Florida Panthers (21-20-3, 45 points)

The Panthers were two minutes from their fourth straight win, but they couldn't contain the Thrashers in the waning moments of regulation Monday night. They blew a two-goal lead and lost in a shootout. It would have been their first four-game winning streak of the season and it would have set them up nicely going into the final two games of their current six-game homestand. Instead, the sour taste has to linger until Wednesday when Columbus comes to town. Hey, the Panthers are not out of this, but they can't blow two-goal leads in the final two minutes of regulation and expect to make the playoffs.

 Buffalo Sabres (19-20-5, 43 points)

Ryan Miller has started 21 straight games and the Sabres are 11-8-2 over the stretch. It's not good enough for a team that dug itself such a big hole to start the season. Buffalo has to start winning at a more impressive clip or hope for a playoff berth will slowly fade. It's not going to be easy this week as they play Boston and Montreal, the top two teams in the Northeast Division, before a weekend home-and-home with the Islanders. That home-and-home and the game next Tuesday against Ottawa are almost must-haves for the Sabres to feel good going into the break.

 Toronto Maple Leafs (18-21-5, 41 points)

The Maple Leafs were happy to have Kris Versteeg back at practice Monday and will be even more thrilled Wednesday when the gritty, scoring winger is able to play against the Rangers. Versteeg missed the last two games with an upper-body injury and, not surprisingly, the Leafs lost them both -- 5-1 in Phoenix and 2-1 in a shootout against Calgary. Versteeg has 12 goals and 19 assists this season. Versteeg plays an important offensive role for the Leafs, especially on the power play.

 Ottawa Senators (17-23-6, 40 points)

The Cory Clouston watch continues in Canada's capital city as the Senators continue to struggle under their embattled coach. Ottawa has lost eight of its last nine games and is 9-17-5 since winning four in a row in early November. The Senators have scored more than two goals in one of seven games this month. Anaheim is in town Tuesday and the Senators don't look anything like the team that played the Ducks in the Stanley Cup Final three and a half years ago.

 New York Islanders (14-23-7, 35 points)

The Islanders have gone back into a mini-rut with losses in four of their last five games. Monday's 5-2 loss at home to New Jersey was by far the worst. The Isles went down 2-0 early and were down 3-0 before PA Parenteau and Michael Grabner scored 52 seconds apart in the second period. Nassau Coliseum had some life, but the Devils answered with two goals within 54 seconds of each other before the second intermission. Rick DiPietro was a healthy scratch Monday, but coach Jack Capuano said he could have played. Kevin Poulin has given up 13 goals in his last four appearances.

 New Jersey Devils (13-29-3, 29 points)

Rookie forward Mattias Tedenby had been a surprising healthy scratch of late given the Devils place in the standings, but Monday coach Jacques Lemaire played the young Swede for the first time in more than two weeks. Tedenby answered with a goal, an assist and an overall strong game, according to Lemaire. The Devils also got a goal Monday from Vladimir Zharkov, his first in the NHL. It took Zharkov until his 49th career game to net one. Lemaire said "it's like winning the lottery." The Devils have scored 18 goals in their last four games.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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