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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Staal could join 'pain' playoff lore

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- Jordan Staal, dry of wit and the master of the understatement, is perhaps the only person in the NHL who could manage to sum up a potential season-ending surgery for a sliced foot tendon in exactly 57 words.

"I just got cut. Obviously, it was a freak accident, and went on the bench, looked down, wasn't looking good, so I went to the room and took the skate off, knew that it wasn't just a cut, went obviously straight to the hospital right after, had a little surgery, went home and had a good sleep."

Next question.

There was plenty of eye-rolling when Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma announced Staal was day-to-day after having a procedure to repair the cut incurred when the center got tangled up with Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban midway through Game 1.

There were rumors Staal's toe had been severed and he was done for the year. Even when he magically appeared on the ice for five minutes dressed in sweats before the morning skate Tuesday, there was much skepticism over whether he was anywhere near returning to action.

And yet, there he was at 11:32 a.m. Wednesday, joining the coaching staff and a handful of teammates and minor league call-ups on the ice for an optional skate. For almost an hour, he skated in drills and took part in a four-on-four scrimmage.

At one point, teammate Ruslan Fedotenko inadvertently took Staal down. Fedotenko looked expectantly as Staal got back to his feet and skated back into the play.

"He was testing me out there," Staal joked. "Obviously practice is one thing, but in games, there's hits and all that stuff and leaning on each other and getting in scrums. Mentally for a player, that's tough to get into, and Rus was just testing me a little bit."

By the end of it, Bylsma was almost but not quite ready to suggest there was a possibility Staal could return for Game 4 on Thursday night.

"I think when he first got out there today, he was kind of putting his toes in the water and seeing how his foot would react. And then as you watched the four-on-four there, a couple of times he busted through the defense and by guys and you probably didn't see anything that would remind you that he may have an injury with his foot.

"We'll see. He'll talk to the trainers today and see how his foot reacts. Judging by the end of his practice, we're a lot more comfortable with how he was skating than at the beginning of practice. If he can skate like that, there is a possibility -- depending on how he feels [Thursday] morning -- that he could still be day-to-day."

We often talk reverentially about players playing through injuries and pain in the playoffs. The Ottawa Sun recently reported Daniel Alfredsson had sports hernia surgery after playing through the injury in the first round. Every team has players playing through aches and pains that normally would keep them out of the lineup if the stakes weren't so high.

It is part of the mythology and lore of the Stanley Cup playoffs: Paul Kariya getting up after being destroyed by a Scott Stevens hit to help force Game 7 in the 2003 Cup finals, or Bob Baun scoring the overtime winner with a broken ankle for Toronto in 1964. It is what will always, thankfully, separate hockey from soccer or baseball.

Perhaps by the end of this playoff season, Staal will join that mythology, that distinguished list of players willing to put pain aside for the chance to keep chasing the dream.

A nominee for the Frank J. Selke Trophy awarded to the game's top two-way forward, Staal couldn't guess how close he was to being able to return to action.

"Again, I'm not really good at math, I don't really know," he said.

One thing is certain, though: The Penguins' chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champs go up exponentially whenever Staal returns.

Someone asked Staal if the surgery had affected his toe.

"I don't know. It's kind of just one big blob down there. It's something I'm just going to have to work through," he said, giving an indication of just what kind of tolerance for pain he possesses.

Maybe it's something in the air in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Or maybe it's all that time playing in the homemade rink on the family's sod farm with none of the boys willing to cry uncle. Regardless, the Staal boys don't take kindly to being told to sit on the sidelines. Brother Marc Staal of the New York Rangers has played in 202 straight games. Older brother Eric of Carolina played 349 straight games before an injury forced him out of the Hurricanes' lineup.

Until Game 2, Jordan had never missed an NHL game, regular season or playoffs, because of an injury. In fact, since coming into the league in 2006, he was a healthy scratch for one game and that's it.

"I haven't had that feeling obviously in a long time, when you're not playing, and it's not a fun feeling," Staal said. "You want to get back as soon as you can no matter what, whether there's pain involved or not."

He acknowledged that when he got to the dressing room, he knew it was bad from having seen the cut in the skate while on the bench and didn't look when the laces on his skate were cut to get his boot off.

"I didn't look this time. I didn't want to look," he said. "I can bear with it, but I didn't feel like looking this time."

What he did do, however, was ask the training staff to stitch up the cut tongue on his skates so he could put them back on as soon as possible.

"To be honest, I was using them today. They're still good," said Staal, who clearly does not share captain Sidney Crosby's penchant for superstition. "It's still got some miles on it yet," he said of the offending skate, which now has a protective plastic covering on the top.

Was he worried his season might be over?

"Obviously when you're going on the table in a hospital, it's never a good thing," said Staal.

As reporters congregated around Staal's locker-room stall after Wednesday's workout, someone asked Fedotenko if he was surprised to see the team's premier penalty killer and top two-way player back on the ice.

Fedotenko snorted.

"He'll play with one arm, one leg, it's Staalsy," Fedotenko said. "We're not surprised. Maybe you guys are surprised."

Ah, the playoffs.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.