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Droschak: Giant vs. Giant

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
At 6-foot-4, Eric Staal stands tall – in stature and talent – when he steps on the ice at rinks across the NHL. The face of the Carolina franchise – along with Cam Ward – has pretty much done it all so far in his short professional career.

Staal has won a Stanley Cup, is one of just six players to score at least 30 goals each of the last four seasons, signed a lengthy and lucrative contract extension with the Canes, and most recently propelled his team into the Eastern Conference semifinals with a Game 7 winning-goal that stunned the New Jersey Devils in the waning moments.

You would think Staal has little, if anything, to prove. Check that.

As a matter of fact, Staal's competitive nature is the equal of his talent, meaning his performance against Boston during the regular season, which included a four-game sweep of the Bruins over the Canes, didn’t sit very well with the three-time All-Star.

The Carolina center took the collar against the Bruins, going scoreless with a minus-6 rating. Staal couldn’t wait to get on the plane today and head to Beantown to prepare to square off in what many predict will be a long, physical series against the Bruins -- and in particular for Staal – giant defenseman Zdeno Chara. 

Staal won’t be able to breathe in this series without the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Chara knowing if the Carolina star is chewing Dentyne or Trident. Bank on it.  

“It doesn’t matter who we play.  Eric Staal is going to see, not just one, but different guys shift-by-shift. He gets a lot of attention. That’s what All-Star players get,” said Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford.  

“I don’t think I played my best against them this year,” added Staal, who including playoffs has logged a remarkable 368 consecutive games. “I’ve had success against Boston in the past and I like playing in their building. So, it’s about getting ready to play in this series now. The regular season doesn’t really matter this time of year.”

Prior to this season, Staal actually had his best point production (per game) against Boston than any other NHL team, getting 21 points in 16 games, including nine goals.

In Chara, Staal will be battling a fellow All-Star, and one of the few players who may be able to keep pace with him physically and mentally.

“It’s a challenge, he’s a big man and he obviously has a great reach, and is great in the corners,” Staal said of Chara, a candidate for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. “For me, I’ve got to make sure I rely on my speed and my legs and get him twisting and turning and doing things he’s not comfortable with. I’ll try to rely on a little more quickness than power and keep it simple. He’s a competitive guy and so am I.”

In the past few seasons in particular, Staal has taken battles against the likes of fellow Southeast Division stars Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vincent Lecavalier to heart. In 2008-09, Staal had a combined 24 points in 18 games against Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Washington. Now that’s a nice body of work.

And it’s somewhat ironic that Chara’s defensive partner is Aaron Ward, who won the Stanley Cup with Staal in Carolina before heading off to the New York Rangers as a free agent before getting traded to Boston.

“They are two big men who finish their checks,” Staal said. “For me, I’ve got to be strong on them too, battling them just as hard on the forecheck because I can wear them down as well. I’ll try to dodge the hits when they come running at me the best I can. I’ll be playing hard and keeping it simple, start turning them down low and we’ll get our offense that way.”

The Devils threw 6-foot-5 235-pound Colin White at Staal for the series, but anyone who watched the final six games against the Devils soon realized Staal was the best player on the ice and that White was the one looking for help as the series wore on, not Staal. New Jersey couldn’t take the puck from Staal once he parked behind the net, and couldn’t control him during his late-game rush that resulted in the series winner.

“What I see in Eric now is he waits it out,” said TV play-by-play voice John Forslund. “If he gets checked in a playoff series he doesn’t get frustrated, he doesn’t become an individual, he doesn’t take dumb penalties, he doesn’t forget his defensive assignments, and at the end, he becomes the winner. In the last series against New Jersey he handled it all and he rose to the top. That’s very impressive.”

“He has always been such a powerful skater,” added Rutherford. “And over the last couple of years, since we win the Cup, he’s learned not be frustrated by trying to be shut down all the time, just keep going and going and going and something will happen. He makes things happen, just as he did in Game 7, because of his determination.”

Rutherford has always believed in Carolina’s offensive balance, which he believes compliments Staal’s overall game and allowed him to blossom as one of the game’s best players. 

“There is no pressure on him,” Rutherford said Thursday. “He won a Stanley Cup at a real young age and everything is ahead of him. He’s got the ability and he deserved his contract. We’re very happy he chose to stay here for a long time and it should be fun for him now. This is the best time of his career. He’s accomplished a lot as a young guy. Now he can just go and play.” 

Staal stopped short of predicting a big series for himself. However, the look in his eyes and the sharpness in which he answered questions before heading to Boston are a true indicator he’s forced and ready for yet another “giant” challenge.

“We’re a different team now,” Staal said. “And we can say that all we want, but we’re got to prove it and go in there and be ready to play.”

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