A trip to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins always allows Jordan Staal to renew some old acquaintances.
What’s up, Sidney Crosby.
Happy holidays, Chris Kunitz.
I’ll be coming to see you, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Never miss a local story.
If, that is, Fleury is the Pens’ starting goaltender.
Staal and the Hurricanes will play their first post-Christmas game Wednesday in Pittsburgh against the defending Stanley Cup champs. They’ll do it without defenseman Justin Faulk, who is out “week to week” with a lower-body injury, Canes coach Bill Peters said Tuesday.
Staal, who helped Crosby and the Pens win the 2009 Cup, has had his own injury issues this season, missing seven games with a concussion, but has recovered, physically and psychologically. In the road game last week against the Buffalo Sabres, the Canes center dropped the gloves to face off with Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, hardly something doctors want to see from someone who has had a recent concussion.
“I guess there’s no better way to test it out,” Staal joked Tuesday.
This was a big-boy fight — Staal is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Bogosian 6-3 and 228. Although few actual punches were thrown before the two fell to the ice, Staal did what had to be done in standing up for his team.
“It’s part of the game,” Staal said. “Sometimes you may not be thinking (about injuries) during it. It is what it is.”
The fighting major took Staal out of the game for five minutes, which is hardly what Peters wants. But the Canes won 3-1, then topped the Boston Bruins 3-2 in overtime the next night to take a three-game winning streak into the Christmas break.
Staal did land a big punch in the Bruins game. With Boston leading 2-0 in the second period and on the power play, Staal hopped on a bouncing puck near the Bruins’ blue line, kicked it to his skate and bolted down ice for a breakaway shorthanded goal.
It takes a while, coming off that injury. He’s a dominant guy, hard to play against. He’s 6-foot-4 every shift. He starts with the puck a lot.
Bill Peters on Jordan Staal
Call it a gutpunch for the Bruins.
“A huge moment in the game, for sure,” Peters said.
Another big moment came in the third, on a designed play. Staal beat the Bruins’ David Krejci on an offensive-zone faceoff, Elias Lindholm carried the puck to his right and found Faulk open in the right circle. Faulk didn’t miss and the score was tied 2-2.
“That play is nice because you have an option,” Staal said. “(Lindholm) made a great play but the key is him coming across and having the option to shoot, which can really pull the guys toward him. He kind of faked that and found a guy who unfortunately will not be playing for a little bit and was really heating up for us.”
Faulk’s goal was his fourth in five games, and the Canes will miss his heavy shot. But Staal now has two goals and two assists in the past five since coming off injured reserve Dec. 13, scoring the winner that night against Vancouver at PNC Arena as the Canes erupted for six in the third for an 8-6 win.
The analytics folks like Staal’s Corsi and Fenwick numbers — that despite a lot of defensive-zone starts. He’s 60 percent on faceoffs. His line, with Lindholm and Brock McGinn on the wings, can play with an edge and be sound defensively, but can also be a threat to score.
“It takes a while, coming off that injury,” Peters said of Staal. “He’s a dominant guy, hard to play against. He’s 6-foot-4 every shift. He starts with the puck a lot.”
Staal said he has gotten stronger each game, and still has some of the kid in him. As practice was finishing up Tuesday, Derek Ryan was by himself, winding up for a big slap shot. Staal, skating past, reached out and banged Ryan’s stick on the shot, causing the puck to go well wide of the net.
Old defensive habits are hard to break. The two players looked at each other and laughed.
“It must be instinct,” Staal said, smiling. “Or growing up with brothers, always messing with each other.”
Hurricanes at Penguins
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh