After a breakout season in 2005-06, Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal took a step backwards last year. So far this season, he appears determined to bounce back.
Staal looks to continue his hot start Saturday as the Hurricanes visit the Washington Capitals in a matchup of Southeast Division rivals.
Staal ranked seventh in the league with 100 points (45 goals, 55 assists) in the 2005-06 regular season. He then helped Carolina win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history with 28 postseason points - the most by any player since Joe Sakic had 34 for Colorado in 1996.
Last season, however, Staal managed only 70 points (30 goals, 40 assists) and Carolina failed to make the playoffs.
The disappointing year may have motivated Staal to start this season strong. He has three goals through two games, including two in the first period of Friday's 4-1 win over Pittsburgh.
It was the 14th multigoal game of Staal's career. Carolina (1-0-1) is 11-2-1 in those contests.
"He came into camp in great shape and that puts you in the right direction to having success," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "He certainly is, I think, showing that he worked hard this summer by the way he's playing the game. ... When he does that he can dominate."
While Staal has been carrying the offensive load, goaltender Cam Ward has also been stellar. The 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has stopped 70 of 74 shots through two games.
"It's just a matter of coming out every night and being mentally prepared," Ward said. "I do the best that I can to hold myself accountable to be right mentally, get myself fired up before the game, because every game means a lot. You look at last year, we were fighting for our playoff lives. You never want to look back early into the season, wishing that you had a win here or there."
Despite his early success, the Hurricanes could give Ward a breather on Saturday. Veteran backup John Grahame, who went 1-1 while giving up seven goals in three starts against Washington last season, is expected to get the nod.
The Capitals (1-0-0) got big performances from three of their offseason acquisitions as they beat Atlanta 3-1 in their season opener Friday. Free-agent signees Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov each scored a goal and rookie Nicklas Backstrom had an assist in his first NHL game.
"(Backstrom) had a really strong first game," said Washington coach Glen Hanlon, whose team hasn't won its first two games since a 3-0-0 start to 2002-03 - the last time the Capitals made the playoffs. "For a player still not 20 years old, we have great expectations for him. ... He seemed to be in the right spot all night, on offense and defense."
Carolina won five of these teams' eight meetings last year, including two of four on the road. Staal had four goals and five assists in those games.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington's leading scorer with 92 points (46 goals, 46 assists) last season, had seven goals and an assist versus the Hurricanes in 2006-07, giving him 10 goals and eight assists in 16 career games against them.
"He was so sound all over the ice," Hanlon said after Ovechkin recorded an assist in Friday's game. "He is going to score goals for us, but he does so many things well."