RALEIGH — For Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes, the time is drawing nigh, the clock ticking loudly.
On Dec. 30, Team Canada will announce its long-awaited and much-discussed player selections for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. For Staal, that means only a few more games to make his case - on the ice - for being one of those chosen to represent his country and play for the gold.
Staal's first priority is winning games for the Hurricanes. But the three home games this week, beginning with tonight's matchup against the New York Rangers, offer the opportunity to add to the Canes' three-game winning streak at the RBC Center and perhaps to secure that coveted Olympic roster spot.
"It's been pushing me since the summer," Staal said of his Olympic quest. "But I don't know if it's adding more [motivation]. We're just trying to win games here, and that's my main focus."
Since returning from an injury to his abdominal area that hampered him early in the season and then sidelined him for 10 games, Staal has produced more than a point per game - 14 in 12 games. His strong stride is back. The heavy shot. The playmaking. The presence on the ice.
Staal said he never believed his slow start and the games missed had ruined his Olympic hopes.
"I didn't feel at all that I was out of it," he said. "Obviously I was hoping to get back as soon as I could from the injury and then hopefully play well from there.
"I feel like since I've come back I've started to play a lot better in my game and the way I need to play to help this team. I think if I keep playing well these last bunch of games I'll have a good chance of being in the mix for the team."
Steve Yzerman, Team Canada's executive director, flew in to scout Staal in the Hurricanes' Dec. 5 game against the Vancouver Canucks. Staal produced two assists and linemate Erik Cole had a hat trick in a 5-3 victory at the RBC Center.
Staal said he didn't speak with Yzerman but was aware he was in the building.
Staal's versatility should help. A natural center, he saw time on the wing at the Team Canada orientation camp in Calgary in late August - where he first suffered a lower-body injury that later worsened - and could be used as a winger given the glut of available centers.
"Wherever they find they can fit me in, I'll be happy to play," Staal said. "I think you have to assemble the best team you can to win a gold medal, and hopefully I'm in that mix."
Staal, 25, was a nonplaying reserve on Canada's disappointing 2006 Olympic team that failed to win a medal at Torino, Italy. Until his injury this season, he has been considered a virtual lock to make the 2010 team.
Canes goaltender Cam Ward also attended the orientation camp and hopes to be chosen, but he said the leg laceration that knocked him out of 13 games "didn't help me at all." Ward insisted he must "play with a belief I've still got a chance" but realizes he could be nudged out of a spot.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said it may be Staal's competitiveness in the defensive zone that could be the difference.
"It may be crunch time for evaluation, but he's able to mentally control his game and not think, 'I've got to score six tonight,' " Maurice said. "Because I don't think that's what they're looking for with him anyway. There will be enough offense on that team.
"The question is how many guys can mentally compete defensively if it's 2-2 against a highly skilled opponent. Can you cut him down when he's in your end?"
Staal, who has three goals and 11 assists in his past 12 games, said he tried to stay away from the Internet and all the Team Canada musings and guesstimates. The Canadian media, he joked, picks its team "probably 400 times" before the official announcement.
"Some of those teams you're on and not on some others," he said, grinning again. "Obviously, the main guy who will make the call will be Steve Yzerman."
A call Staal's still hoping to receive come Dec. 30.
Note: The Canes on Sunday reassigned defenseman Bryan Rodney to the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League. Recalled Dec. 15, Rodney had three assists in three games.
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