PITTSBURGH -- On a day to celebrate new beginnings, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jordan Staal will suit up for the first time in seven months and rejoin a team on a grandiose stage. It almost seems fitting that the 22-year-old center, who learned the game on a makeshift rink in Thunder Bay, Ont., would make his season debut in open air.
It's been a long time coming for the third-year forward, who had surgery on his hand during the offseason and has suffered a seemingly endless stream of setbacks through the first half of this season. Three times he's looked about ready to return, and three times, he's been called back, reevaluated and subsequently sat. Saturday morning, however, all signs were a-go.
"Now that it's finally here, it doesn't even really seem real yet," Staal said. "But I know as soon as I get out on that ice and play a couple shifts and let it really sink in, it gives me chills now and I'm really excited for it."
His right hand, still wrapped tight underneath his glove, has fully healed, and Saturday morning, he practiced taking face-offs and participated in some drills. In his first game back, expect Staal to ease in, likely centering Evgeni Malkin, who will shift to the wing.
"[Staal] won't play the normal number of minutes," coach Dan Bylsma said. "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 [Malkin's] line, but on my lineup card, he's playing center with Geno on the wing."
The decision to bring Staal back for this particular game was simple, Bylsma says. He treated the situation as if it were just another game.
"If this was a game in Buffalo today, would he play?" Bylsma asked. "And the answer to that is unequivocally yes. So that is why for sure he's playing this game."
It is not, however, just another game for just another player. It's curious that the Penguins would be willing to thrust Staal, who's been out of commission all season, right into the brightest of all spotlights. The first games back from an extended absence are always difficult; making a return in the middle of a circus like the Winter Classic only adds to the expectations. But it just may be too much to ask to expect anything so soon -- like tonight.
Still, in the bigger picture, the return of Staal to the lineup bodes well for the Penguins, who are leading the East after riding a high through the last month of the season. Returning the big-bodied center to the lineup, gives a boost to an already strong penalty killing unit, which ranks second in the league at 87.5 percent, and of course, Staal can bring plenty of upside. He has 84 goals in his first four seasons.
But how he responds to his first big setback in his young career -- he missed only one game in his first four seasons -- will be something to keep an eye on. The missed time was trying for the youngster. "There was not just one disappointing time for him," Bylsma said. "Given the injury and the situation, in a lot of cases, it was best to let Jordan stay away from the rink in some of those times. The difficult part has been seeing him get excited about playing and getting healthy and then have some setbacks. But he's got a smile on his face right now."
And why not? For his first game on the season, he will walk out to a rink in open air to the grand noise of 70,000 expectant fans who have been waiting to see him return. They believe he can help take the Penguins to another level. Will he do so tonight? It seems unlikely, but the magic of the Winter Classic makes anything seem just a bit more possible.