and Evgeni Malkin
, both being out of the lineup for the first time in 437 consecutive games.
The Penguins entered uncharted territory on Thursday in New Jersey, with their two star players,
Thankfully, there's Jordan Staal
Thursday marked Staal’s ninth game of the season after missing the first 39 contests due to injury. While most players who are out that long are simply trying to regain their conditioning and gradually return to game form in their first few games back, Staal’s been forced to undertake an expanded role almost instantly.
He's proven to be more than up to the task of filling the void left by the Penguins’ top two leading scorers by emerging as a presence both on and off the ice.
Staal’s growing leadership is something head coach Dan Bylsma said he and the coaching staff discussed with him prior to the season. The 22-year-old center, who wears an ‘A’ as alternate captain for the Penguins, just hasn’t had a chance to truly show it until now.
Leadership always plays a big role when we’ve got a tough time. Whether it’s myself or a few other guys in the room, we need to lead in the room and out on the ice as well. I’m just trying to do that. - Jordan Staal
“Off the ice and in our room and for our team, (leadership is) something we’ve talked to Jordan a little bit about this summer and in the fall during training camp,” Bylsma said. “He does command a presence in our room and he is a leader. He has an effect on the people around him. And that’s something that he is doing a better job of.”
While he still doesn’t feel 100 percent on the ice, Staal knows the team is counting on him to step up.
“Leadership always plays a big role when we’ve got a tough time,” Staal said. “Whether it’s myself or a few other guys in the room, we need to lead in the room and out on the ice as well. I’m just trying to do that.”
And he’s been quite successful. After being held pointless in his first five games back, Staal has four points in his last four games, including two clutch game-winning goals, and is averaging 19:39 of ice time.
His play on the ice and ability to put up points so quickly after such a long absence is inspiring to his teammates.
“It’s huge,” Staal’s road roommate Tyler Kennedy
said. “He’s taken on a big role with minutes and stuff like that. He’s doing a great job putting up points and really leading us out there, so it’s great.”
“I think just by the way he plays, he leads by example,” Staal’s linemate Matt Cooke
said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot, but the way that he plays, the way that he approaches the game, and the way he prepares, he’s leading every day.”Brooks Orpik
, the Penguins’ longest-tenured player, has been Staal’s teammate since he joined the team in 2006. Orpik is most impressed with the dedication and commitment Staal showed by staying in shape during his rehabilitation that’s allowed him to contribute right away.
“He was really disciplined, worked really hard with (strength and conditioning coach) Mike Kadar, and when he was ready, he was able to step right back in,” Orpik said. “He’s still probably not 100 percent, but him at 85 percent is better than most guys. So he’s been crucial to get back, especially with Geno and Sid not playing.”
Bylsma said to count on Staal to continue to be a commanding presence as he matures, even when Crosby and Malkin return.
“He’s more aware of the effect he does have on our team and the people he’s playing with,” Bylsma said. “If you watch him closely, he has been doing that. And I expect him to do that even when Sid and Geno come back.”