RALEIGH — Since the moment the NHL awarded the 2011 All-Star Game to the Carolina Hurricanes, Eric Staal has been inked into the lineup. As a three-time All-Star already, and the game MVP in 2008, he was a lock to represent the host team.
Just as long as he didn't mess it up.
If that placed any pressure on Staal, it's impossible to tell now. Two months into the season, he's tied for 10th in the NHL in scoring, his numbers on pace to match his career year in 2005-06.
At this point, there isn't a surer All-Star out there who isn't named Crosby or Ovechkin. They might as well have called this the Staal-Star Game when they awarded it. The only question now is whether the NHL will pick Staal to captain one of the teams in the new choose-it-up format. "Obviously I want to be there, and I want to be a part of it," Staal said. "I think the NHL itself would probably want me to be in the game, so it's up to me to play well and be in the mix with the top guys as far as points go. I've been doing that, and I hopefully can keep that going and enjoy that whole experience."
After scoring a relatively tepid seven points in nine October games, Staal caught fire in November, particularly when placed on a line with Sergei Samsonov and Chad LaRose, finishing with 21 points in 15 games.
Perhaps most significantly, Staal helped rally the team offensively after blowout losses to the Philadelphia Flyers (8-1) and Montreal Canadiens (7-1) with 11 points in the next seven games. The Hurricanes were 2-2-3 over that span but easily could have gone 5-2-0 with better luck in the shootout. (Staal went scoreless in Carolina's past two games, a win and a loss.)
"It's nice to put up some numbers offensively, but the biggest thing is wins," Staal said. "We've kind of been up and down. We need to get some consistency in the win column."
From a statistical perspective, Staal's November was stellar, but coaches tend to see things differently. In this case, the two standpoints align: "Even better than his numbers," Maurice said.
"He has played, in the last month, the best hockey I've seen him play, numbers aside, even though his numbers are very good," Maurice added. "He's really become a big leader for us."
Most likely, Joni Pitkanen will join Staal as an All-Star, with Cam Ward a possibility and Jeff Skinner one of the young players invited to take part in the skills competition.
But the pressure to perform, to lock down the All-Star slot all but reserved for him, was directed at Staal more than anyone else. It doesn't look like it bothered him a bit.
"I'm sure it's always in the back of his mind," Samsonov said. "It'd be very special to play on home ice, with the game being at home, but I don't know if that's what drives him. More than anything, since getting the captaincy, he's been our leader. That's what drives him - winning games. I don't necessarily think it's about his points and assists and making the All-Star Game."
A little more team success might increase the chances more of his teammates get an All-Star nod, and it's wins, not points, that can take any remaining All-Star pressure off Staal now.