It may have been just another road game on the schedule to many.
Yet, last Saturday’s battle at Toronto left an indelible mark on Jordan Staal.
And, not just because he was playing on Hockey Night in Canada for the first time in his home province, just down the road from the place he played junior hockey in Peterborough, and against the team he grew up watching.
It was the result that was one of the highlights of the young Penguins star’s career. Staal tallied his first NHL hat-trick – the third goal coming 3:54 into overtime to give the Penguins a wild 6-5 win.
“It turned out to be one of the biggest games of my life so far,” Staal said.
According to Bob Waterman of Elias Sports Bureau, Staal, at 18 years, 153 days old on Feb. 10, became the youngest player in NHL history to record a hat-trick. He broke the record held by Jack Hamilton, who was 18 years, 185 days old when he tallied four goals for Toronto against the Rangers on Dec. 4, 1943.
“I guess it was just good timing,” Staal said with a smile. “It’s something special. It was Hockey Night in Canada and in Toronto against a team I grew up watching my whole life. I knew I was going to be up for the game, but I didn’t think it was going to turn out like that.”It’s hard to believe any of the regular-season record 19,620 people in attendance at the Air Canada Centre did, either.
“I got a lot of phone calls after game and I talked to a few friends after the game,” Staal said. “It was an amazing experience for me.”
The game was extremely intense as the Penguins watched the Maple Leafs erase a 3-0 lead with four-straight goals. Both teams traded scores before Max Talbot knotted the game late in the third period. It set up Staal’s overtime winner as he faked a shot, skated around a Toronto defenseman and wristed the puck into the net.
“It was one of those games where it went back and forth. You have to stay even-keeled throughout the game and not get too high or too low,” he said. “They battled back from a 3-0 lead and we came back with a couple of key goals from Talbot and [Ryan] Malone and we ended up on top.”
The memorable game wasn’t a fluke for the 18-year-old rookie. Through 58 games, Staal has 31 points (24+7) and a plus-10 rating. He owns an NHL-best 27.3 shooting percentage. After the Toronto game, he had a five-game goal-scoring streak in which he scored seven times on just 14 shots.
His play has been key during the team’s 16-game point streak. Before Monday’s loss to the Islanders in New York, the Penguins had not lost in regulation since Jan. 10 against Florida.
“I think part of it is just confidence. I think the team is really focused on what we’re doing here,” Staal said. “We want to make the playoffs and that’s all we’re focused on right now. We have to get the points to do it and the team seems driven in one direction and that’s it.”
And, he’s been especially dangerous on the penalty kill as his five short-handed goals lead the NHL. Staal is the fifth rookie in NHL history to score five-or-more short-handed goals in one season. The others to do that were Gerry Minor (six, 1980-81 Canucks), John Madden (six, 1999-2000 Devils), Dennis Maruk (five, 1975-76 Golden Seals) and Guy Carbonneau (five, 1982-83 Canadiens).
Among his other memorable moments this year:
He became the first player since 1982 to score his first three NHL goals short-handed. Bill Gardner (Chicago) also scored his first three NHL goals short-handed. Both he and Staal played junior hockey for Peterborough.
On Oct. 21 vs. Columbus, Staal (18 years, 41 days) became the youngest NHL player to score two or more goals in one game since Dec. 21, 1943 when Bep Guidolin (18 years, 12 days) scored twice for Boston in an 8-5 win over Toronto.
On the same date, Staal became the youngest NHL player ever to score a pair of short-handed goals in one game, breaking the record set by Radek Dvorak (Florida) on Dec. 12, 1997 (20 years, 278 days).
Also in the same game, Staal became also the youngest player in NHL history to score on a penalty shot, breaking the record previously held by Nathan Horton (Florida) (18 years, 224 days) on Jan. 8, 2004.
Quite an accomplishment for someone who didn’t even think he’d be in Pittsburgh this year.
“Coming into the season, I wasn’t really expecting to make the team,” said the 2006 second-overall pick. “I was just kind of hoping. Once I made the team, I felt like I belonged. The longer I was around, the more confident I felt and I just went from there.
“For it to turn out like this, it’s pretty amazing. I am just happy to be here. Hopefully I can just keep getting better.”
With the help of Penguins veteran winger Mark Recchi, Staal’s improvement should only continue.
“I think Recchi has really helped me out. I have been living at his guest house throughout the whole year,” Staal said. “He’s just been helping me with the little stuff of the ice and kind of keeping my mind off stuff. It’s allowed me to be more focused on the ice and it’s helped me a lot.
“I just have to keep working hard and making the right plays at the right time.”
Despite not seeing nearly as much ice time, Staal’s recent surge has put him on the heels of oldest brother Eric for the family goal-scoring title. The Carolina Hurricanes forward has 25 goals in 61 games – one more than Jordan.
“He’s not giving me a whole lot of feedback because he knows I am coming for him,” Jordan said with a smile. “It’s neat that we’re both doing so well. Hopefully, I catch him.”