Hurricanes’ play no longer Staal-ed

Whether it’s the new coach or the new year, something has gotten into Eric Staal.

Since Dec. 29 — incidentally, two days after his brother Marc Staal was cleared for contact after suffering a concussion at the hands of Eric — he has been on a scoring rampage with 16 points in 13 games.

Some fans were booing his every shift but after the dismal start it seems that Staal is beginning to turn his season around. He’s still tied for the worst plus/minus in the league (minus-23), but with his recent 16 points, he’s nearly doubled his total points for the season in less than a month.

Until Dec. 29, he had just seven goals on the season, a bizarre anomaly for a perennial 30-goal scorer.

Not only is Staal ramping up his scoring, but he’s also improving in other aspects, most notably faceoff wins. Before Dec. 29, Staal had a 48.8 percent faceoff win percentage. In the last 13 games, his percentage was 53.8 percent, improving his overall season percentage to 51.5 percent.

What changed? Staal himself does not have an exact answer.

"I honestly don’t feel like I’m playing that much differently," Staal told the News & Observer. "I think it’s a combination of probably everything."

That "everything" could include the arrival of new coach Kirk Muller, scorer Jeff Skinner back in the Hurricanes’ lineup after injury, brother Marc’s return to the game and even a simple line change that now has Staal centering Jiri Tlusty (18 points) and Tuomo Ruutu (26 points).

Maybe it’s Staal responding to the team’s improved play or vice versa, but the Hurricanes are 5-3-3 in January after a disappointing 5-7-2 December record. Staal feels that the wins are coming more easily because of improved team consistency.

"That’s the biggest thing," Staal told reporters last week. "As a team and as a group, we’re playing a much more consistent brand (of hockey). We haven’t won every game, but we’ve felt good about our losses, if that makes any sense. We’ve competed hard and been in every game."

That compete level is exactly what Muller has been waiting for since he assumed the Hurricanes’ bench on Nov. 28.

"There’s a lot of things I see that I like," Muller told the News & Observer. "The common denominator … is if you don’t compete and you don’t outwork your opponent and you don’t play hard consistently, it’s really hard to win. I keep telling these guys, if you bring that effort to the games, and you play with a focus and pay attention to detail, you’re in the games and then it’s a matter if you get the right bounce or not."

Even with the current improvement, the Hurricanes are very unlikely to make the playoffs. An improving record is a good sign, but the team is already looking past this postseason to next year. The Hurricanes are taking steps toward a revamped lineup, and aren’t waiting until the trade deadline or this summer’s free agency to do it.

Last week, the Hurricanes traded AHL players Jon Matsumoto and Mattias Lindstrom to the Florida Panthers in exchange for promising Russian defensive prospect Evgeni Dadonov and A.J. Jenks. Just hours following a 3-0 shutout win over the Washington Capitals on Friday, left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky was shipped to the New Jersey Devils for minor-league defenseman Joe Sova and a fourth-round draft pick.

With several players performing well on call-ups from the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers this season, the trades give those players the chance to play more minutes with the Hurricanes while building up the team’s future prospect pool.

"This trade brings the Hurricanes assets for the future, and gives the young players in our system the opportunity to gain more NHL experience this year," general manager Jim Rutherford said in a statement regarding the Ponikarovsky trade.

The Hurricanes may already be looking ahead to next season, but they still like what they’re doing right now. The team is hoping to keep the winning momentum going following this week’s All-Star break, and are looking to put together their first winning month all season.

"We just want to build what we have going right now," Muller said to reporters Sunday. "When you have a big break like we have coming up, it’s nice to finish feeling good about yourselves and our game."

Southest Division notes:

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was suspended three games for a hit on Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek during a game Sunday. After the suspension was handed down, Ovechkin decided to opt out of the NHL All-Star Game. "I feel like I’m not deserving to be there right now because I am suspended," Ovechkin told reporters. Penguins LW James Neal was selected by the NHL to go to the All-Star Game in Ovechkin’s place.

The Winnipeg Jets have lost three straight games going into the All-Star break, and the team’s offensive woes have been well-documented as of late. Before suffering a concussion last week, leading goal scorer Evander Kane had gone 10 straight games without scoring and the Jets were 4-6-0. D Dustin Byfuglien was selected to the game, but as he remains on injured reserve with a knee injury, the Jets have no players attending the All-Star Game. They’re looking forward to the break to re-group "It’s a long five months to get to this point, so it’s something that everybody looks forward to, because it gives you one break before the final push," C Kyle Wellwood told the Winnipeg Sun.

The Florida Panthers have struggled with injuries this season, and were thrilled to get three key players back this week. RW Jack Skille (shoulder), LW Sean Bergenheim (groin) RW and Scottie Upshall (hip) returned to the ice against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday. "It helps so much with energy and that kind of enthusiasm," coach Kevin Dineen said. "It’s important as we push to that long (All-Star) break we’ll have starting next week."

The Tampa Bay Lightning are riding a four-game winning streak. They’re looking forward to continue the streak after the break, particularly since they’re expecting to get a key component back in their lineup. Defenseman Victor Hedman, out since Dec. 27 with a concussion, is aiming for a Jan. 31 return. But while the Lightning have been winning, they were dealt one big loss this week after learning that C Dana Tyrell is out for the season, requiring surgery on a torn ACL. The injury occurred in a game against the Penguins on Jan. 15.