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Notebook: Staal-wart Effort

by Joe Prince-Wright / Pittsburgh Penguins
Jordan Staal was the hero for the Penguins on Thursday, when he whipped a blistering shot past Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick with just 18.4 seconds left in overtime to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 victory.

Staal stepped up exactly when his team needed him to score the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory, which marked head coach Dan Bylsma’s 100th-career NHL win.

In the absence of three of the team’s top-four centers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Mark Letestu (and with Dustin Jeffrey leaving Thursday’s tilt in the second period with a lower-body injury), Staal has been the Penguins’ leader both on and off the ice. He was rewarded for his efforts on Thursday.

“If anything I just buried my head and hit it as hard as I could,” Staal said. “The couple before that were pretty much the same shot, but luckily that one went in.”

Staal peppered the goal all night long, teeing off five shots and having another two blocked. But the center finally broke through as the clock wound down to give the Penguins their seventh overtime win of the season.

“We all know he can contribute offensively,” fellow center Maxime Talbot said. “For him to show up like that in that moment of the game is huge for us.”

Staal led the Penguins through an intense battle with the Kings, as he worked tirelessly on both offense and defense to help pull out the win for his team.

He said the Penguins improved as the game wore on.

“We had a lot of chances, we kept pushing the whole game for a goal,” Staal said. “Towards the end we had a lot more chances and were playing much better hockey.”

Zbynek Michalek had remarkable defensive effort in the first period as he twice denied the Kings on point-blank scoring opportunities.

Michalek first batted Justin Williams’ shot away from the net after the Kings forward had deked past Fleury, who had been caught out of position with 13:28 remaining in what was then a scoreless first period.

After the puck was cleared out of danger, Brett Sterling scored on the resulting play to put the Penguins up 1-0.

“I was there and was hoping to get a stick on the puck and I was able to stop him there,” Michalek said. “It was huge for our team and we scored 30 seconds after so it was a good shift.”

Michalek again proved his worth as a defensive lynchpin for the Penguins when he pounced on another loose puck in front of the net while Fleury was sprawled on the ice after making the initial stop. Michalek tied up Andrei Loktionov’s stick just when it looked like the Kings would score.  

“On that play I didn’t know where the puck was but I heard the crowd go ‘Ohhh!’ so I knew it must be close,” Michalek said. “So I just tied up my guy and somebody managed to clear the puck. On both those plays it was a very close call.”

Michalek’s superb defensive play helped spur his team on to concede just once in the Penguins’ 2-1 overtime win. The Penguins are now ranked second in the NHL with a 2.23 goals-against average.

Byslma certainly believed Michalek’s key plays helped set up a night of overall solid defense from the Penguins.

“It was Z’s battle level and battle at the net that prevents that thing from going in our net,” Bylsma said. “We had a team effort in a lot of areas and especially at that back end to give us that opportunity to get two points.”

The Penguins sent Joe Vitale, Brett Sterling, Nick Johnson and Ryan Craig to Pittsburgh last night in a van. Usually just a car is needed for call-ups from Wilkes-Barre. Not this time.

All four players played a crucial role in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 overtime win, with Brett Sterling notching his first-career goal for the Penguins in the process.

“The guys from Wilkes-Barre are doing an unbelievable job,” Staal said. “It is nice when those guys come up and they are ready to play.”

On the play that led to the Penguins’ first goal, Jeffrey slid a perfect pass to a trailing Sterling in the slot, whose powerful wrist shot put Pittsburgh up 1-0 at the 6:53 mark of the first period.

Dustin Jeffrey had a great look and threw it under his stick and got me into the slot,” Sterling said. “I had all the time in the world to beat him high glove. It was a good feeling.”

The goal was Sterling’s third-career NHL goal and his first since Oct. 24, 2008, with the Atlanta Thrashers. Sterling has tickled the twine with regularity for WBS this season, with 18 goals and 39 points through 46 games. In 2007-08 Sterling led the AHL in scoring with 55 goals while with the Chicago Wolves.

All four call-ups acquitted themselves superbly as they lessened the blow of losing players such as Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu, Arron Asham, Matt Cooke (and Jeffrey, who left the game midway through the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return).

"I thought Nick Johnson was really good – he showed his speed and did some really good things in the defensive zone," Bylsma said. "Brett Sterling played some meaningful minutes and gets his goal. Joe Vitale and Ryan Craig all had situations where they delivered for us, corrected the penalty kill. They did a great job stepping in. There were a lot of big contributions from guys that we just recently called up."

The line of Johnson, Sterling and Jeffrey looked especially dangerous in the first period. Vitale, making his NHL debut, made a heads-up defensive play when he cleared the puck away from the front of the net in the first period on the play where Michalek stopped Loktionov. He also finished with four hits.

An eventful night for all four call-ups was complete when Ryan Craig got Penguin fans on their feet when he fought with Wayne Simmonds in the second period.

Craig was standing up for teammate Kris Letang after Simmonds hit Letang late.

“I was just trying to stick up for a teammate and help the team win,” Craig said. “I think any time you win a hockey game it’s great. But with the adversity they have gone through here and for us to come in we got one out tonight. Jordan with a big goal in overtime and Flower stood on his head, it’s a great win and a bit of momentum for us.”
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