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Penguins to Use Committee Approach To Replace Staal

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins might have skated away with a 6-3 victory Friday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but they still suffered a devastating loss when center Jordan Staal was knocked from the game in the second period after a collision with Montreal’s P.K. Subban at the Canadiens blue line.

Staal gingerly skated on his own power to the bench, but was quickly ushered to the Penguins locker room after the next whistle, where he stayed for the remainder of the night.

Head coach Dan Bylsma gave an update on Staal’s condition following practice at Southpointe on Saturday, and the news wasn’t quite as bad as it was originally feared.

“I’d like to begin with clarification on the Jordan Staal situation,” Bylsma said. “There have been a number of rumors. It is not an Achilles. He is not ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs. He had a procedure to repair a tendon on top of his foot. He will be day-to-day from here on out. He is not out for the remainder of the playoffs.”

That Staal will return to the Penguins at some point during the postseason was definitely the good news on Saturday, but in the interim his teammates know how tough it is going to be to replace a player who sees ice time in so many crucial spots.

“He is a great player and we are going to miss him dearly,” said Tyler Kennedy, one of Staal’s usual linemates. “It’s a great opportunity for everybody to step up.”

“Hopefully we are going to have him back as soon as possible,” Craig Adams said. “Until that time there is not going to just one guy who can replace him. He does a lot of things. In the meantime it’s going to have to be by committee.”

Adams led that committee on Friday night along with Maxime Talbot, two centers who have also spent a lot of time on the wing this season due to the Penguins extraordinary depth down the middle. In fact it was Adams who turned in the game-winning goal for the Penguins late in the second period when he jumped onto the between Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis – Staal’s linemates before his injury – and promptly scored a goal on his first shift with the trio.

Talbot also has plenty of experience playing in a third-line role, as he did it for much of the 2006-07 season when Staal played wing on a line with Evgeni Malkin.

Adams and Talbot figure to get a majority of playing time during Staal’s absence by virtue of their track record as competent defensive centers, which is probably the biggest strength Staal brought to the lineup, as evidenced by his Selke Trophy nomination.

“We have that with Max and Craig Adams, guys that play the wing, play center, penalty kill, they can play in a shutdown role and are responsible in defensive situations,” Bylsma said. “In a situation in the game where you lose a centerman, we took a winger, Craig Adams, and inserted him into the center position and your team doesn’t miss a beat. There isn’t an adjustment on how we need to play. Within the game and in a short time frame the team doesn’t miss a beat with guys like that.

“Craig and Max can go out and play wing and take a faceoff in the defensive zone for Evgeni Malkin in certain circumstances. It’s a luxury in making decisions behind the bench. A team can withstand an injury and not miss a beat with guys like that.”

In addition to Adams and Talbot, two others who might be called upon to take some of Staal’s ice time include Kennedy and Mark Letestu.

Kennedy, who played down the middle in junior, has played predominantly on the wing the past two seasons, but also saw significant action at center in March. While he hasn’t had to play there much at the NHL level, Kennedy said he would welcome the challenge if he is asked to return there again.

“I would feel comfortable,” Kennedy said. “There would obviously be a lot more thinking, but I am up for that challenge.”

Letestu, who had one goal in 10 games with the Penguins during the regular season, is an intriguing option. Not only is Letestu’s two-way ability highly-regarded by the coaching staff, but his offensive instincts make him a viable candidate to replace Staal’s minutes on the second power-play unit.

“Mark Letestu is a guy that played 10 games for us, is good on draws, is a right-handed shot and is responsible in knowing how we need to play, and played well for us while he was here,” Bylsma said.

If Letestu gets the call it would be his NHL postseason debut, but he said he is up for that challenge.

“I’d hope to bring some fresh legs and some energy to the group,” Letestu said. “Hopefully that would spark something. If I get a chance I just want to use my foundation and bring my game. I hope that would translate into success.”

Letestu said his game plan will be to keep things simple and not try to replace Staal if he is thrown into the fire on Sunday.

“My first regular-season game that was the plan,” he said. “This is just another level of intensity. Making the smart plays at the right time is something that will go a long way.”

On Friday night the Staal line had the chore of matching up with the Canadiens top line of Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn, a unit which torched the Capitals for 12 goals in the first round.

Plekanec is also Montreal’s top centerman, and Bylsma indicated Saturday that while the group of centers who replace Staal, along with wingers such as Dupuis and Cooke, will continue to receive that assignment, don’t be surprise to see the Sidney Crosby unit helping out against Montreal’s big guns.

“Matchup-wise it is a little bit different than what I’m looking for,” Bylsma said. “Jordan was a guy that we’d put, on most occasions, against their best line or best centerman. That may shift in responsibilities with Cooke and Talbot, Adams possibly in that role, with Dupuis. Sidney Crosby’s line will probably see a little more time against other teams’ top lines. It’ll change our matchups a little bit, but it won’t drastically change the roles on our team.”

Although the individual roles won’t change, some of the lines might as Bylsma mixes and matches to find the combinations which will benefit the Penguins the most. Adams believes playing with different linemates won’t alter the Penguins’ chemistry, as they have gotten used to playing together at various points throughout the season.

“Coach Bylsma has always been a coach who does a good job getting everybody in so you end up seeing time with almost everyone on the team,” Adams said. “It’s something we are used to now. Maybe depending on how long we miss Staalsy, I think everybody feels comfortable with everybody.”

The Penguins have overcome injuries in the past. On each occasion the sum of the remaining parts has come together to keep the team afloat. Whether it’s Adams, Talbot, Kennedy, Letestu or a combination of all four, the Penguins will find a way to get the job done in Staal’s absence.

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