Jets-Penguins Preview

Sidney Crosby’s status remains a mystery, but the Pittsburgh

Penguins are getting one of their other star centers back.

After missing 15 games with a knee injury, Jordan Staal should

provide a boost in his return Saturday as the Penguins host the

Winnipeg Jets looking to avoid a fourth loss in five games.

Pittsburgh has perhaps the best top-three center combination in

the league, but that depth has taken a big hit with Crosby missing

the past two months and Staal sitting out the last 15 games since

injuring his left knee Jan. 6.

“I’m feeling really good,” Staal, who has 15 goals in 34 games,

told the Penguins’ official website Friday. “The last couple days

it was great just to get a couple practices with the team and kind

of get back into the timing and everything. Things are looking

up.”

Staal led the Eastern Conference with a 22.1 shooting percentage

at the time of the injury, but he’s also one of the league’s

premier defensive forwards and penalty killers.

Pittsburgh (30-19-5) is one of the league’s five most effective

at killing penalties at 87.8 percent, and it’s been percentage

points above that during Staal’s absence, but that hasn’t made a

difference recently. The Penguins killed off all 11 power plays

during a four-game road trip, but come home 1-2-1 after a 3-2

shootout loss to Montreal on Tuesday.

They’ve denied all seven of Winnipeg’s power-play chances in

splitting a pair of games in Manitoba, but might be more concerned

after what the Jets (26-24-6) did late in the third period at

Washington on Thursday.

Down 2-0 but with a 6-on-3 advantage after pulling Ondrej

Pavelec, Evander Kane got Winnipeg within one with 2:15 left.

Twelve seconds later and with a 5-on-4 edge, Dustin Byfuglien

scored to tie it, and the Jets won 3-2 in a shootout.

“We haven’t had a lot of luck lately,” coach Claude Noel said.

“So, for us, we’ll take that and we’ll run with it.”

Winnipeg, which had been 0 for 17 with the man advantage during

its past seven games, pulled within three points of the Capitals

and Panthers, who share the Southeast Division lead.

“I think we’re talking about a team that is in a playoff mindset

right now where you need to win to go on, not necessarily just this

game. They need to win games to go on,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma

said. “That’s what we think we’re playing (Saturday) – a team

that’s in playoff mode right now.”

Desperate as they may be, the Jets have scored an NHL-low 26

non-shootout goals in 18 games since the calendar turned to

2012.

Getting much past Marc-Andre Fleury, who will start Saturday for

the 13th time in 14 games, won’t be easy. Fleury is 11-2-0 with a

1.83 goals-against average in his last 13 starts against the Jets

franchise, including 7-0 at home.

The Penguins have won 10 of their last 11 in the series when

Evgeni Malkin – who missed a 2-1 loss Oct. 17 – has played, and the

league’s leading scorer has a lot to do with that. Malkin has nine

goals and 12 assists, including nine power-play points, during that

11-game stretch.

Staal has five goals and three assists in his last nine against

the Jets.

Pavelec is 1-8-0 with a 4.16 GAA versus Pittsburgh.