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It was a trying season for Jordan Staal and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 22-year-old missed the first dozen games of the NHL season recovering from a nasty cut to his foot, then, before he could step on the ice to play a single contest, was forced to the sidelines for 27 more, the victim of a broken hand suffered in practice.
By the time he did return, the Penguins had an even bigger void to fill, as captain Sidney Crosby went down with a concussion, an ailment that threatens to continue to sideline him into the start of the 2011-12 campaign.
To make matters worse, the Penguins other former scoring champion, Evgeni Malkin, went down with a serious knee injury, ending his season as well.
“It was definitely a frustrating start of the season,” said Staal, who still managed to post 11 goals and 30 points in 42 appearances, adding a goal and two assists in seven playoff games as the Pens were eliminated by the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round.
“With the infection (in my foot) it just didn’t seem like it would ever go away. Actually I was supposed to play in the next game and I broke my hand in practice, so it was a really frustrating time, a tough time. But I have a lot good family around me, a lot of good friends, who helped me through it. I just came back and tried to do the best I could.”
Given all the missing talent, Staal said he thinks the Penguins did a pretty good job, rolling to a 49-25-8 campaign, good for fourth in the tough NHL Eastern Conference.
They simply ran into a deeper team come playoff time, he said.
“The playoffs, we wish it would have ended differently,” said Staal, whose Penguins enter 2011-12 just three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup win, with most of the core talent – including defenceman Kris Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury – intact.
“It’s disappointing every year unless you win, so we can only keep going.”
The good news is Malkin appears ready to return to the Penguins lineup, and GM Ray Shero is contradicting reports Crosby’s concussion will keep him in the stands in the early stages of next season.
Adding their talent to a team that managed to miss winning a conference title by a mere two points has the youngest of three NHL-playing Staal brothers raring to go.
“It’s weird. I think all three of us played one game together last year. If you really think about it, I think we’re all really excited about this upcoming season. We have a great opportunity to take full advantage of the players we have, hopefully have an injury-free season and we can make the playoffs and have a good run.”
With first place on his mind, Staal said he hopes he can help them get there with bigger numbers, perhaps hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time in what will be a six year career once the upcoming season begins.
“I also want to keep doing what I can defensively. As a team we want to be first, we want to be the team to beat. We want everyone chasing us.”
Staal, the second overall choice in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, has 95 goals and 103 assists in 369 career games, all with the Penguins.