With the All-Star game this weekend, it’s a good time to reflect on just where the Carolina Hurricanes would be without the recent play of Eric Staal
, who has single-handedly kept the Canes in first place in the Southeast Division.
A month ago, the 23-year-old center wouldn’t have been the likely choice to be suiting up for the Canes in Atlanta this Sunday. But he’s been on a tear of late, notching 11 goals in his last 16 games to inch to the top of the Carolina scoring chart with 48 points.
Staal’s 27 goals ranks eighth in the NHL heading into the break, while he’s second in power play goals (12) and game-winning goals (six). Staal has three of Carolina’s five game-winning goals since Dec. 28.
Staal is the first player for the franchise in almost two decades to be named to consecutive All-Star games. Kevin Dineen represented Hartford in three straight All-Star games from 1987-89.
“It will be a good time,” Staal said. “It’s a nice honor to be named with the amount of talent we have in our league and to be able to represent our team is exciting. It’s fun to see the guys you compete against on a regular basis in a relaxed atmosphere.”
Staal is not nearly as excited heading to All-Star Weekend the second time around, but cherishes the chance to bring some exciting hockey to fans in attendance and watching on TV.
“The game usually is a good time and we put on a good show,” Staal said. “There is a lot of offense and a lot of skill. You don’t have to worry too much about getting run or a defenseman stepping out on you, so it’s more like a pond hockey game to where you can have your head down and stickhandle and not worry about getting crunched.”
Staal tied with Marian Hossa for best shooting accuracy at last year’s SuperSkills competition. Staal also scored a goal from teammate Justin Williams in a 12-9 win by the West.
“I think they had me in every event possible. Hopefully, I’m not in every event this year, but usually the young guys get thrown in every event. There is some pressure there. You do have some butterflies going. But once you do one event, you forget about the 20,000 watching and people watching on TV and have fun with it.”
Staal has noticed a marked improvement in his consistent play over the last month, resulting in more offensive opportunities, and thus more pucks finding the back of the net.
“I’ve had more tenacity on the puck, going to the areas where goals are scored,” he said. “And when I’m getting those opportunities they are falling into the back of the net. I have that confidence in my ability to be able to put it back there right now. That needs to continue down the stretch and any way I can help offensively to get us wins is what I’m going to try to do.”
Staal agreed that the Eastern Conference has more firepower than the Western Conference, but he isn’t about to predict a win for his side.
“Usually whenever you think one side is going to win it goes the other way,” Staal said. “There is some skill out West too, but the game is played a little bit differently. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of goals. I feel sorry for the goalies, they get bombarded by breakaways and 2-on-1s and guys left alone in the slot. They get hung out to dry, for sure.”
Carolina returns from the All-Star break on Jan. 29 against the New York Rangers at home, leading the Southeast Division by three points despite a .500 record.
“We’ve got to play with that edge, playing with the confidence that we can get wins, and working for 60 minutes every game,” Staal said. “If we do that, more often than not our team is going to come out on top.”
Staal has been a workhorse since joining the NHL, having missed just one game. This season, he is one of just two Carolina players (Tim Gleason is the other) to have played in all 52 games, and has a streak of 246 straight games heading into the second half of the season.
“Yeah, it’s a lot of games,” Staal said. “A lot of guys get banged up and it’s pretty physical out there. I’m grateful to be able to strap the skates on every game and be able to keep playing. The main thing is making sure I get my sleep, I’m eating right, drinking a lot of fluids. I don’t do anything special, but for me I’ve got to play the same way every game and not worry about the streak."