PITTSBURGH, Pa. - No player is more excited to take the ice at Heinz Field for the Winter Classic than Jordan Staal.
After a series of injury setbacks, the Pittsburgh Penguins centre is ready to start his season in style by playing in Saturday's outdoor game against the Washington Capitals. Staal had only missed one game during his first four seasons in the NHL before sitting out 39 games this year.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs," he said after Saturday's morning skate. "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."
The Penguins have taken a cautious approach with the 22-year-old. Staal first skated with teammates on Dec. 26 in Ottawa and has practised throughout the week. The team was happy with how he looked during Friday's skate at Heinz Field.
"The decision is more dramatic because it's the Winter Classic," said coach Dan Bylsma. "We approached the decision as if this was any other game. If this was a game in Buffalo today, would he play? The answer to that is unequivocally yes.
"He's had a tough go of it. He's had some tough injuries and he's had to battle through that more emotionally than physically."
Staal had his right foot cut by a skate during last year's playoffs and needed to have two additional surgeries over the summer because of infection. Just as he was about to return in November, he broke his left hand in practice.
The Penguins have done surprisingly well without Staal, who was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward last season. On Saturday, Bylsma plans to use him as the second-line centre with Evgeni Malkin on the wing.
It's been an extremely tough road back for Staal. His teammates are happy to see him smiling in the dressing room again.
"We're just happy he's back," said captain Sidney Crosby. "Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get back in the swing of things. I'm sure it's going to take a bit of an adjustment with the time he's missed. Just to see him back, that's what we're happy about.
"To see him happy, to see him healthy, that's the important thing."