PITTSBURGH -- And now we finally see the great experiment begin.
Evgeni Malkin's shifting to wing alongside Jordan Staal on a potent second line was the buzz item of Penguins camp, but frustrating setbacks in Staal's recovery delayed, and delayed, and delayed that plan. Finally, after eight months without game action and four surgeries (three to his foot and the latest to his hand), Pittsburgh's dynamic, two-way center makes his return Saturday night on no less a stage than the Winter Classic.
"I feel ready to go," Staal told media after the morning skate at Consol Energy Center. "The coaches think the same thing. It's kind of funny how it kind of falls on me being ready for this game, but it's exciting and I'm happy to be back in the lineup."
The Penguins will tell you the timing is pure coincidence, but one has to think missing the Winter Classic would have been a brutal blow for a player who has had to overcome more than a few bumps in his long recovery.
"I guess there's more drama to it because of the Winter Classic, but we approached the decision as if this was any other game," insisted head coach Dan Bylsma. "If this was a game in Buffalo today, would he play? The answer to that is unequivocally yes. And so that's why for sure he's playing this game. But he's had a tough go of it. And he's had some tough injuries and he's had to battle through that, more emotionally than physically. It's been tough for him that way."
Staal had never faced this kind of adversity in his young career.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs," Staal said. "Almost three times I was ready to play and it got taken away from me. Now it's here and it doesn't even feel real yet. But I know as soon as I get out there on that ice, it'll sink in. It gives me chills now and I'm really excited about it."
Mother Nature lent a helping hand, pushing the game seven hours later Saturday because of rain, a change that Staal figures helped.
"I think it did a little bit," Staal said. "I don't think I really had taken any faceoffs, but I took a couple today and it felt great. It's just nice to get some video in and stuff like that. I feel more relaxed and prepared for the game. It definitely helped me a little bit that it starts at 8 p.m."
Now Staal has to find his legs over the next little while, and get the chemistry going with Malkin. The Russian star needs a kick in the pants and maybe this is just what he needs. Malkin is on pace for the lowest offensive output of his impressive career, and the tandem with Staal could be the tonic he needed.
Bylsma will be careful about how he uses Staal early on, though.
"He'll play on a line with Geno [Malkin] some parts of the game," Bylsma said. "He won't play the normal number of minutes. He was a 19-and-a-half-minute guy for us last year. So there are circumstances or times when he might not be on that line, but yes, he will be. On my lineup card, he's playing center, with Geno on the wing."
The Penguins lead the Eastern Conference, and got there without Staal in the lineup and with an inconsistent Malkin not being his old self on some nights. If the Staal/Malkin combo takes off, imagine what kind of support that would give top-line center Sidney Crosby in his sensational season.
Scary, that's what it is.