Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes spent the first six years of his career playing with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Since his trade to Carolina in June 2012, Staal has often been matched up against Crosby, center against center, and could be again Friday as the Canes host the Pens at PNC Arena.
Is it possible Staal has learned Crosby is even better than he realized when he was his teammate?
“I would agree with that,” Staal said. “Now being on the other side, knowing both what he can do and trying to defend it, it’s a huge challenge.
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“It makes for a fun challenge but it’s a big challenge playing against him. I’ve appreciated his game even more being on the other side.”
Crosby, 29, has put up some impressive offensive numbers again this season for the 2016 Stanley Cup champions. In 38 games, he has 27 goals and 50 points, leading the NHL in points per game and on pace for a 100-point season.
“He seems to be finding ways to get one every night,” Staal said. “It’s the speed he plays at. It’s a fast league but he is quick and when he has the puck he’s already going as fast as anyone else on the ice. Not only that he moves the puck well and reads the game well, and everything is just quick.
“He’s strong and his hand/eye coordination has to be one of the best in the league, as well. He’s just a hard guy to react to. You try to take away his time and space but he’s smart enough to find the holes when they’re there.”
Crosby has 45 points (13 goals, 32 assists) in 36 career games against Carolina.
— The Canes (21-16-7), after the 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, aren’t making any changes in the lineup.
Cam Ward will again be the starting goalie, making his 39th appearance of the season in the team’s 45th game.
Staal will center Brock McGinn and Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask will be at center with Jeff Skinner and Derek Ryan, Teuvo Teravainen will center Sebastian Aho and Lee Stempniak, and Jay McClement will be at center with Joakim Nordstrom and Viktor Stalberg.
The defensive pairs will have Ron Hainsey with Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin with Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin with Matt Tennyson.
The Canes have faced the Pens (28-11-5) once this season, losing 3-2 in Pittsburgh on Dec. 28.
“They played a strong game against us,” Pens coach Mike Sullivan said Friday. “For me, this is a team that’s improving by the day. They’re a young team. They play with a lot of speed. I think they generate a lot of offense from their defensemen. We know this is going to be a hard game.”
The Canes also will have some added motivation: many of the players’ fathers are in town for the annual “Dads Trip.” The Canes play at Columbus on Saturday.
— Watching the Pens’ morning skate Friday from on high was Jim Rutherford, who knows his way around PNC Arena.
Rutherford, the former Canes president and general manager, was the architect of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup champions and earned another ring last year with the Pens. Like many of the league’s GMs, he’s concerned about the effects of a highly condensed NHL schedule down the stretch of the season.
Each NHL team is taking a mandated five-day break, which are staggered throughout the league. Rutherford said he would like to have a uniform break for all teams, perhaps adding a few days during the Christmas break and around the NHL All-Star Game weekend.
— Former Canes forward Matt Cullen won’t play Friday. The veteran center took a shot off the foot against Washington this week and is out three-to-four weeks. … The Pens have scored at least once on the power play in 12 of their last 17 games (19-60, 31.7 percent). … The Pens are 16-0-0 when leading after two periods. … After a three-game losing streak, the Pens have won the past two including the wild 8-7 overtime win over the Caps. Crosby had a goal and three assists in that game.