In Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens, Pens fans took witness to an unfamiliar sight as center-man Jordan Staal gingerly limped off the ice in the second period.
Staal has yet to miss a game in his four seasons as an NHL forward, amassing a consecutive game streak of 358 games, which includes the playoffs.
But after undergoing surgery on a lacerated tendon in his foot on Saturday, one thing is certain—Staal's "ironman" streak will end on Sunday afternoon when the Pens host the Canadiens for Game Two of their second round series.
Although there has been speculation Staal could return to the lineup as early as the Eastern Conference Finals (if the Pens are to advance), no one truly knows how quickly he will recover.
How does this impact the Penguins?
While it’s often Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin who get credit for the Penguins’ success, the role Jordan Staal plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins cannot and should not be understated.
As evident by his recent Selke Trophy nomination, Staal is one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. He is continually matched up against the opponents’ top line and is by far the Penguins best penalty killer.
In addition to his defensive abilities, Staal also adds a great amount of offensive depth to an already talented team, centering the best third line in all of hockey.
So here comes the million-dollar question: Assuming Jordan Staal does not return for the remainder of the playoff season, can the Pittsburgh Penguins still repeat as Stanley Cup Champions?
To be quite honest, no one knows how to answer this.
I can list no statistics or give you any observations I've made on how the Pens play without Jordan Staal—they’ve never been forced into that situation. All anyone can do is speculate how the Penguins will fair moving forward.
Pittsburgh will still win the Eastern Conference without Jordan Staal.
While the Penguins will obviously miss his services, the loss of Canadiens’ defenseman Andrei Markov will be every bit as detrimental, if not more so, for Montreal.
Without Markov, the Canadiens are 14-20-3 this year. He plays around 24 minutes per game, and is the quarterback of Montreal's potent powerplay.
If Montreal goes on without Markov, they have no chance of beating Pittsburgh, with or without Staal.
So the Penguins will still (as I so boldly predicted before the start of the second round) make the Stanley Cup Finals even if Jordan Staal does not return.
But they will not win the Stanley Cup without him.
The four remaining teams in the Western Conference are far too talented and far too deep for the Penguins to defeat without Staal. They all have top-tier forwards who have the capabilities of taking over games at any given time and those are the guys that Staal’s third line would normally be matched up against.
The Penguins are not a team known for their defensive prowess as it is. If they are to lose a guy like Jordan Staal, a guy who excels in all aspects of the game, their chances of defeating the likes of San Jose, Detroit, Chicago, or Vancouver would be greatly minimized.
With that in mind, let’s hope Jordan makes a quick recovery and we don’t have to worry about this scenario.
As always, let’s go Pens!