When Rod Brind’Amour was lost for the season with a torn ACL on Valentine’s Day, many thought it was one injury too many for a team that had been dealing with them all season long.
The Hurricanes captain joined a list including long-time linemate Justin Williams, who suffered the exact same ailment as Brind’Amour back in December, and forward Chad LaRose, who broke his leg in early February, as players projected to miss the rest of the regular season at the very least.
Add those to two separate sickness outbreaks and scores of less serious injuries that have occurred throughout the season, and it looked as if the loss of Brind’Amour may have been too much to bear.
Instead, the team has stepped up admirably since the injury, posting a record of 6-2-1 while holding on to their precious Southeast Division lead and the guaranteed playoff spot that comes with it.
While most in the locker room will tell you that it’s been a total team effort that has caused them to be successful down the stretch, and it has, a big share of the credit has to go to center Eric Staal, who has certainly picked up his share of the slack.
Including the game of Brind’Amour’s injury, which occurred on his first shift after only 54 seconds of ice time, Staal has posted 13 points in his last nine games. That’s a pace of 1.44 points per game, up from his previous rate of 0.81.
“He’s becoming a genuine superstar in the league and he has every right to that,” said fellow center Matt Cullen. “He’s earned it. Especially since Roddy went down he’s stepped his game up another notch, which has been huge.”
“I think he is definitely emerging to be our MVP,” added goaltender Cam Ward.
Besides just putting up points, Staal, already the MVP from this year’s All-Star Game, has had to fill other roles in Brind’Amour’s absence.
While no player has or will wear the C on their sweater until the captain returns, the team recently gave Staal the alternate’s A on full-time basis, a statement that the 23-year-old veteran of four NHL seasons will play a bigger leadership role on the team.
”He’s leading by example out there,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “I think when you’re playing those minutes and your team is having success, you’ve got to look to a guy like that to set the tone and set the example, and he really hasn’t missed a beat. He’s been great.”
“His effort level on a night-to-night basis has been pretty impressive on both ends of the ice,” said Cullen. “You can just see it in his eyes. I think he’s going to grab hold of the reins here and he’s done a good job with all of it.”
Much like Brind’Amour, Staal says he leads more by his attitude and effort on the ice rather than by being particularly vocal in the locker room.
”I like to get fired up in the room before games, but nothing real ‘rah rah’ or crazy,” said Staal. “I just try and do my speaking on the ice and in the way I play.”
“He’s not a real vocal guy in the room, but he brings it every day,” said Cullen. “It’s good to see that in a young guy that’s got a good head on his shoulders. He knows where he wants to be and he’s done a good job with everything.”
Staal has also proven to be one of the most dependable players on the roster when it comes to, well, actually being on the roster. He is the only player to have played in every game this season, and his current streak of 240 consecutive games played is the longest in Hurricanes history.
When it comes to leading by example, that’s a lot of examples. If the Canes are to retain their lead in the Southeast Division and make the playoffs, a lot more of them couldn’t hurt.
“I’m just trying to bring it every night and bring my intensity and work ethic to every practice and every game,” said Staal. “I’m looked upon a little bit more in other situations with Roddy out, so I’m just tying to bring that little extra.”