How do you shut down a player best known for being a shutdown defender?
With his size and strength, expansive wingspan and underrated skating ability, Jordan Staal has been a defensive force since breaking into the NHL with a rookie-record seven shorthanded goals as an 18-year-old in 2006-07.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder immediately became a perfect complement to offensively gifted Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- and yet another matchup problem for opponents already concerned with controlling Malkin and Crosby. He often centers the third line, but he's a top-line talent.
Here's the problem for the Bruins and the rest of the NHL: Staal's offense is catching up to his defense.
Staal's knack of turning big defensive plays into goals – if not for himself, then for a teammate – will be on display when the Penguins play host to the Bruins at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday (NBC, TSN). The Penguins have won eight in a row, while the Bruins are coming off a Saturday afternoon defeat by the Washington Capitals at TD Garden.
"Everybody talks about (the Red Wings' Pavel) Datsyuk and how good defensively he is, but Staalsy, the way he plays, he's big physically, he plays on the power play, he creates so much offensively," Pittsburgh defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "He definitely is at the top of the League."
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A five-week layoff with a knee injury likely will prevent Staal from matching his rookie-year total of 29 goals. But with 22 goals, including three while shorthanded, and 36 points in 46 games, this is easily his best offensive season since then. He's become a true force offensively since returning from the injury layoff, with seven goals and nine assists in 13 games since Feb. 11.
"He's so big and strong, when he's on the ice you feel like he's such a big help back there," Michalek said. "He's always reliable no matter what. I think he's a little underappreciated around the League, how good he is at both ends of the ice. To me, he is one of the top two-way players in the League."
There is no lack of appreciation for Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, who is widely regarded as the League's most imposing and intimidating shutdown defender. His offensive gifts, however, sometimes are overlooked – he has nine goals, 40 points and is a plus-27 on a first-place team that won the Stanley Cup last season and is leading the Northeast Division.
Bruins-Penguins games characteristically are intense and physically demanding; the Dec. 5 matchup – the last in which Crosby played for Pittsburgh – was especially competitive and featured at least a half-dozen punishing hits as Boston won 3-1 at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins won the rematch 2-1 on Feb. 4 at TD Garden, where the teams meet again April 3.
Crosby won't return to play Sunday, but could return as early as Thursday against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Look for the Steve Sullivan-Staal-Pascal Dupuis line, which scored all four Pittsburgh goals in the last two games, to match up frequently against the Bruins' top line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Tyler Seguin. Staal's cross-ice pass led to Sullivan's goal during Pittsburgh's 2-1 shootout win over Florida on Friday.
Staal's defensive responsibilities don't require him to be less aggressive offensively. His shooting touch is much improved since when he first came into the League; and he currently ranks in the top five in shooting percentage.
"I definitely have been working on it and have been trying to tweak little things, try different things, and it (the puck) seems to be coming off my stick pretty good." Staal said.
It's also easy to overlook that Staal, already in his sixth NHL season, is only 23 and is visibly improving from season to season. Coach Dan Bylsma can see it.
"I think he's got a better understanding of where he can have success and play offense," Bylsma said. "It gives him more time, more space with the puck. And I don't think he gets credit on how well he can skate because he's a bigger, longer-bodied guy. He may not look as great skating, but he's a big and strong skater as well."
Staal said, "I don't know if it's my best or not, but I feel like I'm improved since I came into the League. A lot of it, when you're playing well defensively, you get opportunities offensively. You create plays and turn pucks over, and in this league when you start turning pucks over, you have a good attack pack – you can really score some goals."