Staal finding old form in win over Sharks

RALEIGH, NC — Eric Staal is back.

Actually, the Carolina Hurricanes’ star never went anywhere, but the level of

play that had become his norm took a three-month hiatus to begin this season.

But finally, Staal is playing like the All-Star he has been for most of his

eight-year NHL career.

That level continued Friday night in the Hurricanes’ 3-2 victory over the San

Jose Sharks at the RBC Center. Staal assisted on a goal by Justin Faulk for

Carolina’s second score of the opening period. In the last 10 games, Staal has

five goals and six assists, clearly his best stretch of hockey this season.

“He’s the captain and the leader of our team, so he’s been playing

great,” said second-year star Jeff Skinner. “Even the last couple of

months he wasn’t scoring, but he was doing the little things right. It’s nice

to see him get back on track offensively. The whole team has been playing a lot

better as of late.”

Carolina is 6-1-3 in its last 10 games, with three of the losses coming in

overtime. Clearly, the ‘Canes are also playing their best hockey of the season.

It’s no coincidence that Staal is finally stuffing the stat sheet.

The center from Thunder Bay, Ontario entered Friday’s contest having lit the

lamp in three consecutive contests and four of five, totaling five goals.

In Monday’s 5-3 win at Montreal, arguably the site of the team’s most listless

performance of the season back in November, Staal netted two goals and had an

assist in probably his best outing of the year. Both goals and the assist came

in a three-goal third period, lifting Carolina from a 3-2 deficit entering the

period.

He’s been on the plus side for five consecutive games. In fact, Staal is plus-8

in the stretch. For the season, he is minus-19. He was a minus-24 after a 2-1

home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 10.

Staal’s struggles caught the organization by surprise. He’s been quite

productive dating back to his 45-goal season in 2006 when the Hurricanes won

the Stanley Cup. His seasonal goal totals since: 30, 38, 40, 29 and 33. He

totaled 473 points in those seasons and was never worse than minus-10 for a

campaign.

Perhaps even more impressive are Staal’s 19 goals and 43 points in 43 playoff

games.

But this season started out terribly. He had just five goals when Muller

replaced Paul Maurice on Nov. 28, and while the drought continued – Staal

scored a goal in only one of Muller’s first 13 games as coach – the star’s

mindset began changing.

Muller acknowledged he was a communicator when he landed the job, and getting

to know Staal and turning him around was a priority. Staal was more active and

became more vocal, but the goals still weren’t coming.

One here and another there, but nothing Staal-like that Carolina fans had come

to expect, until recently.

“You work hard, eventually results are going to go in your favor,” Muller

said. “I thought he was working hard for a while. The results weren’t always

there to justify his play, but he’s been playing two ways with and without the

puck, worked hard every day in practice. He’s been a quiet leader, but I

thought he’s really elevated even one more notch since this road trip.”

Skinner, 19, who is expected to produce like Staal has, learned watching the ‘Canes

captain handle his struggles.

“Having watched him going through something, but doing the little things

right, persevering through it, I think it shows a lot to a young guy like

myself and everyone on the team the attitude he came with to work every

day,” said Skinner, who scored his 16th goal Friday. “Now he’s

getting rewarded for it.”

The Hurricanes are nine points and five teams away from the eighth and final

playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but they did climb out of the bottom spot

(16th) with Friday’s victory.

A playoff push is unlikely, but with the team gelling under Muller’s system and

Staal finally doing what he does best, the final 24 games will carry meaning

and intrigue.