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Eric Staal still working to earn a trip to Sochi

by Kurt Dusterberg

RALEIGH, N.C. -- With the 2014 Sochi Olympics less than eight weeks away, players around the NHL are awaiting their fate.

There will be just a handful of locks for Canada, which will announce its roster Jan. 7. Many of the remaining players will hope for a favorable reading of their resume. Take Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal. He won a gold medal in Vancouver in 2010, and he produces at a 70-point pace every NHL season.

Yet ...

"For me, knowing the type of players we have in Canada, you don't take anything for granted," Staal said after practice Tuesday.

The list of options at center is deep for Canada. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron all figure into the conversation. That's why Staal doesn't sound like he's offering false humility when he considers his chances.

"You've got to make sure you're playing good hockey and doing the right things on the ice, playing a structured two-way game, because that's what is successful," Staal said. "So no, you don't take anything for granted. You don't expect to be there. You have to perform, and that goes for anybody."

Then Staal laughs and makes one exception.

"Besides maybe Sid," he said.

Crosby's obvious inclusion might bode well for Staal. They played together on a line with Jarome Iginla for part of the tournament four years ago in Vancouver.

Staal isn't banking on his past performance, not after a slow start to this season, when he had nine points through the first 18 games. Media members wondered if his low output was the fallout from the knee-to-knee hit he absorbed from Swedish defenseman Alexander Edler at the 2013 IIHF World Championship in May. The hit left Staal with a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, and plenty of rehab work during the summer.

"I think there's some correlation," Staal said. "I may have felt 100 percent healthy, but I didn't train the way I normally would at the start of the season as far as being on ice, your skating stride, your leg power. Everything that makes my game successful has to do with skating and power. Early on, it took a bit to get that going, longer than I had hoped."

Now the points are starting to accumulate. In Carolina's past 16 games, he has six goals and 19 points.

"There has been a noticeable difference in myself in the last month or so with my ability to open up the ice a bit with my legs," he said. "That's huge for me. I'm glad to be back to what I normally do."

Exactly how Staal might fit is an issue left to Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and his staff. Staal's scoring touch hasn't returned as quickly as his power game. He has nine goals through 34 games, but three of his past four scores have been empty-netters. So if he doesn't play a marquee role in Sochi, he's OK with it. It's an adjustment most players have to make to play on the world's biggest stage.

"I think that's the way," Staal said. "Everybody wants to be a big part of the success, but in a situation like that, you need to be willing to accept any role you're put in.

Eric Staal
Center - CAR
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 28
SOG: 99 | +/-: -8
"Guys are used to playing 20-plus minutes a night, and not everybody is going to play that. But the minutes you play, you have to play at a high level and contribute."

There's no question Staal can rise to the occasion. He is one of 23 members of the Triple Gold Club, having won Olympic gold, the IIHF World Championship (2007) and the Stanley Cup (2006). Among the three accomplishments, the Olympics offer something unique.

"There's nothing better," Staal said. "It's the highest level of competition. It's like an all-star game that's full out. There's so much talent, but there is such competitive rivalry. It's awesome to be a part of."

For now, the 29-year-old center will do what the other Olympic hopefuls are doing: focus on the NHL games between now and the January announcement.

"At this point, I'm more worried about helping this team get a little ahead," said Staal, whose Hurricanes are 14-13-7. "We're battling around .500, and we're finding some consistency in our team game. For me it's about focusing on that and worrying about my game. Once the team gets announced, I will worry about that a little bit more."

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