It might not be the Sidney Crosby/Alexander Ovechkin match-up in the Eastern Conference’s other playoff series, which has somehow exceeded its already massive expectations, but our very own Eric Staal
/Zdeno Chara confrontation has been a good one thus far.
That being said, Staal doesn’t necessarily see it that way. In fact, he doesn’t know if we should be discussing it at all.
“I think the media is really pushing this rivalry to another level,” he said. “I’m playing my game and focused on what I’m trying to do. As a group and as a team, I don’t think the Chara/Staal battle is going to make the difference. I think it’s going to be the Boston Bruins and the Carolina Hurricanes that are going to make the difference.”
That’s a very fair point, and one that can be appreciated when you consider how many questions he’s had to answer about it over the last several days. After all, there are 38 other players dressed during any given game, and there are a number of different ways one team can beat the other. Strong games from the previously quiet Erik Cole, Matt Cullen and Sergei Samsonov in Game 2 strengthen Staal’s argument.
However, even when acknowledging all that, it’s still an exciting duel between two elite players that bears watching closely, even if it isn’t the one single key to victory.
With two games in the books, Chara and Staal have taken turns claiming the upper hand. Chara took Game 1 by keeping Staal off the score sheet, but the Canes’ star center responded in Game 2 with two points, while the big Bruins defenseman registered a game-worst minus-3.
It’s doubtful that the pattern of one player clearly besting the other from game to game will continue throughout the series as it intensifies. With these two expected to see plenty of each other from here on out (even at home, Canes Coach Paul Maurice expects), the individual tussles between them could escalate as the mutual dislike grows.
“He’s on the ice against me every time I’m out there, and it’s a challenge,” said Staal. “You’ve got to win as many of those fights and those battles as you can. You’ve got to keep competing, because that’s what this time of year has been all about.”
True to Staal’s words, it seemed as though the Canes were able to have success against Chara, who at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds is the NHL’s biggest player, with more of a team approach. While Staal has been taking everything Chara throws at him and even gave a little back in Game 2, he got some help from linemate Erik Cole in actually initiating some of the contact, rather than merely trying to avoid it.
And why not? The feeling is that Chara will want to use his physical play to frustrate the Hurricanes, but who’s to say that can’t work in the reverse?
“You’ve got to be physical on any player,” said Staal when asked if the Canes were making a point to bring the game to Chara, so to speak. “We stayed with that and continued to battle no matter who was there, and in what’s going to be long series you continue to battle and push.”
In the context of this match-up, pairing Staal and Cole together once again seemed to be a success. For what it’s worth, which may not be much when considering how quickly line combinations have been changing recently, the two remained together at Tuesday’s practice. Full line combinations can be viewed here.