Pens not Staal-ing without stars

Pens coach Dan Bylsma is happy with Jordan Staal stepping up during the playoffs. (QMI...

Pens coach Dan Bylsma is happy with Jordan Staal stepping up during the playoffs. (QMI Agency/Martin Chevalier)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:38 PM ET

TAMPA, Fla. -- Coach Dan Bylsma was being hustled off the post-game podium by Pittsburgh Penguins staff when someone in the pack asked about Jordan Staal.

Hold everything. The bus to the airport would have to wait until the coach had given props to the player who has multi-tasked the most in the absence of injured stars and another suspension.

As much as the Penguins' shock troops are getting kudos for their scoring feats to push the Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink of elimination, someone experienced in big-game conditions must be step up, too.

That's Staal, who Wednesday made his 64th playoff appearance, a Game 4 double-overtime victory in which he played almost 30 minutes and assisted on James Neal's winner.

"We ask Jordan to do a lot on our team, power play, penalty killing, 5-on-5, play against the other team's good players," Bylsma said. "He has been a huge guy down the middle for us at both ends of the rink, and is big in the faceoff circles (62% success rate the past two games).

"To log those kinds of minutes and play in those situations ... he's a big backbone and one of the big indicators for our team. (In Game 4) he was a horse again."

Big Horse is actually Staal's new nickname among teammates. The Penguins have ridden him to a 3-1 series lead, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hurt, ill-behaved Matt Cooke sitting in a corner for the first round and Chris Kunitz also missing for an on-ice violation. Bylsma said Staal certainly earned his moniker Wednesday "on our penalty kill, in the third period, blocking shots in overtime, winning battles, winning draws. Then he was a big part of our offence on the winning goal, where he hunts down the puck, keeping it alive. He's a big part of our team right now."

Teammate Brooks Orpik said the Pens have been fortunate to have two or three qualified understudies as each big name is deleted.

"People said when (free-agent defenceman) Sergei Gonchar left that we couldn't replace what he did with one person," Orpik told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "Well, it's the same thing with Jordan. He has got to do what he does and elevate his game. He's never going to turn into those other two guys (Crosby, Malkin), and I think sometimes that's what people expect him to do. That's just not his game."

Bylsma didn't mean to disparage the Bolts by paraphrasing their playoff motto "Hunt It Now" with the "i" in the shape of the Stanley Cup. But four games into this set, the Bolts -- who got the nod as favourites from most pundits based on healthy star power -- have been largely unwilling to get their hands dirty.

Pittsburgh has skated into the teeth of the Tampa trap and come out the other side unscathed, with timely goals on netminder Dwayne Roloson.

At the other end, Marc-Ande Fleury, while great when he has to be, isn't being tested enough. In the two games at the St. Pete Times Forum when the Bolts should have been in Fleury's face and had their crowd on his case, they were out-shot 83-58. Their four goals and 12 scoring points in two home games reveal mostly Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier's fingerprints.

"All year long we were a team that put a lot of pucks on net," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "Now we're waiting for a perfect opportunity. You have to grind it out and put it on net. That's how (the Pens) won the overtime."

Pittsburgh's fourth line of Arron Asham, Michael Rupp and Craig Adams is atop the team leaderboard, while St. Louis and Lecavalier are almost working the Bolts room by themselves.

With a day off and going back to the site of their only win in the series, the passion the Bolts have lacked must return -- or else.


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