PHILADELPHIA – Many observers marvel at Penguins young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
That’s to be expected as the two are among the NHL playoff scoring leaders.
However, Jordan Staal is proving on a national stage that he’s a pretty tremendous young talent as well.
Staal scored two goals Thursday night in the Penguins’ 4-2 loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Philadelphia.
The two-goal outburst gave Staal five for the playoffs, which ranked tied for second on the team behind Marian Hossa and Malkin’s eight. While his offensive prowess took center stage Thursday night, his defensive prowess has shined all season.
The 19-year-old scored 29 goals as primarily a winger last season. Shifted back to his natural position at center this season, he thrived as the Penguins’ shutdown, two-way threat while anchoring the team’s third line.
“Well, he's a shut-down guy, even though he's only 19 years old. So that is pretty amazing for me. He's so smart on the ice. Last year he surprised a lot of people. I think he surprised himself, too, to score 29 goals because the year before in juniors he scored 26,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “But last year was more as a winger. It's more transition here for him. We didn't want to give him the responsibility as a centerman last year. This year it's a full-time season as a centerman, because we believed he was ready for that challenge. It took away a little bit from his offense, and that's normal.
“We got a long-term plan with him to where we see him play. But right now we want him to concentrate to play well defensively. He's so smart. He's got such a good stick. He's doing a lot of good things. He's killing penalties. He's one of the top guys to kill penalties,” he continued. “For 19 years old, I'm impressed. I'm impressed the way he's capable of playing on the ice at crucial times.”
Staal came through in crucial times for the Penguins on Thursday night as his two third-period goals brought the Penguins within 3-2 before the Flyers tallied an empty-net goal.
“He was unbelievable,” Penguins winger Jarkko Ruutu said. “He’s been that way all playoffs for us. What can you say? He’s a great player.”
When he wasn’t scoring goals for the Penguins, Staal, the 2006 second-overall draft choice, was a dominant force on the ice in both ends of the rink.
“He played great,” Penguins forward Maxime Talbot said. “He was on fire and so strong on the puck.”
A game like Thursday’s is just one example of Staal’s development. He had 28 points (12+16) during the regular season, but provided solid play that can’t necessarily be measured in statistics.
“I think I’ve played well this year. I would have liked to have had better offensive numbers this year, but I think I have learned a lot about the game mentally,” he said. “Right now, I feel like I am playing some pretty good hockey for this team in the role I am in and I am happy that we’re winning.”
Staal embraces the role of being a stopper on the ice. However, he doesn’t feel any pressure since the Penguins have played solid overall team defense.
“It’s not easy. To be honest, we’re not really a shutdown line. All of our lines have been playing well defensively and [Philadelphia] has three lines that can score, so it’s not just one line we have to worry about. All in all, I think the team is doing really well defensively,” he said. “I think all four lines have been playing great on both sides of the puck. When a good team is doing that and all lines are scoring goals, you’re tough to beat. A team can’t really look to stop one guy or one line, it’s a collective effort and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.
Dealing with his increased and important role is tough, but he’s just focusing on helping the Penguins rack up victories.
“It’s definitely difficult sometimes, but I am just focusing on how the team is doing and if we’re winning and I’ll go from there,” he said.