Somebody not paying close attention to the Penguins -- one of those types that judges a forward only by goals and points -- a person like that probably wouldn't believe that center Jordan Staal has stepped up in the absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Somebody -- one of those types -- a person like that would be wrong.

"He's taken (on) a lot of responsibility with the guys we have out of the lineup," Penguins winger Craig Adams said Saturday night after Staal recorded a season-best three assists in a must-have 4-2 victory at Florida.

Only a win that night guaranteed the Penguins would maintain control of a race with Tampa Bay for the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed and home-ice advantage in a likely Round 1 Stanley Cup playoff series against the Lightning. Tampa Bay had won Saturday afternoon to temporarily pull within a point, and the Penguins had every reason to feel pressure.

They had lost two consecutive games in regulation. They hadn't scored more than two goals in five prior contests, totaling just five over that span.

A third straight game without a point might not have pushed the Penguins over the edge emotionally, but it would have made for a terrible ending to a week that began with players talking openly of winning the East's top seed.

Amid all that and the possible distraction of Crosby's third straight day of noncontact practice participation, Staal broke out of an offensive funk - five games without a point - to help lift the Penguins to their fourth 100-point season in the past five years.

No teammates were surprised by Staal stepping up at a critical moment. That much is expected of a player who has reputably elevated his level of performance for Stanley Cup playoff games, a player who teammates have started calling "The Big Horse."

"We call him that because he carries a big load," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "He carries a lot of minutes, plays a lot of situations, and does it unbelievably well. He's a big piece of the puzzle."

Actually, Staal is a unique piece of the Penguins' puzzle. Unlike Crosby and Malkin - brilliantly skilled centers who also were lottery picks in previous NHL drafts - his effectiveness isn't always evident by scoring-race related statistics.