Meditation? Visualization exercises?

Jordan Staal shook his head and offered a bemused smile.

The Penguins' fifth-year center might be just 22, but he is too old school for that sort of thing. When he butts up against a challenge, he simply butts back.

Case in point -- filling in for injured centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without letting it overload him with pressure to try to morph into those high-scoring players.

"It's just something you've got to keep in the back of your mind and worry about what you can do," Staal said Monday after practice at Southpointe. "It's a game where you just try to play the way you can best. You've got to be mentally tough and just go out and do your best."

Staal has employed his brand of inner strength a lot the past year, and it takes on a new shine tonight when he will be thrust into the biggest spotlight of his career as the Penguins launch the 2011 playoffs with a game against Tampa Bay at Consol Energy Center.

He missed two games in a second-round playoff series against Montreal in 2010 after needing surgery for a sliced tendon on the top of his left foot, then struggled to ward off a stubborn infection in the foot that required more surgery and kept him out of the lineup for the first 12 games of this season.

He was about 48 hours from playing what would have been his first game, Nov. 3 at Dallas, when he got hit with a shot in practice. His broken right hand required surgery and delayed his season debut until the Jan. 1 outdoor Winter Classic.

Less than a week later, Crosby, the team's top center and the NHL's leading scorer at the time, left the lineup because of a concussion that still has him out. About a month after that, Malkin, the team's other former league scoring champion, was lost for the season because of knee surgery.

Staal never has been a slouch. He scored 29 goals as an 18-year-old rookie and was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the league's top two-way forward a year ago, but, suddenly, he was forced to step out from behind the top two centers' shadow.

Did he flinch?

"No, I don't think so," said longtime linemate Tyler Kennedy. "Sid and [Malkin] haven't been around for the last two months or so. He's done well. It's good to see that he can fill that role. I think he's playing with a lot of confidence."

In 42 games in his truncated season, Staal had 11 goals, 30 points. He continued his role as a top penalty-killer and, at times, has been on the top power-play unit as he was Tuesday at practice.