Staal's start slow

Captain tries to build chemistry

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2011 

Eric Staal is doing all he can to keep his mind clear, his concentration keen and his play consistently good.

That said, it has been tough at times for the Carolina Hurricanes captain. Eight games into the season, Staal seemingly hasn't fully found his stride or gotten into a good rhythm for the Canes (3-3-2), who will host the Ottawa Senators (3-5-0) tonight.

Staal has three goals, all on power plays, and one assist. His minus-10 rating is the lowest in the NHL.

Regardless of the forwards placed on his line, Staal has not yet developed the same feel and chemistry he had last season when Erik Cole was on his right wing. Coach Paul Maurice has tried Jeff Skinner and Alexei Ponikarovsky on the left side. He has tried Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose on the right.

At practice Monday, Ruutu was back on Staal's right wing after being switched to Jussi Jokinen's line - and scoring a goal - during the Canes' 5-3 loss Saturday at Winnipeg. Ponikarovsky remained the left wing.

Asked about Staal's five-on-five play, Maurice said, "It's a group thing. We've got some guys up front who we need to get going five-on-five."

Staal said having Ruutu on the right side wasn't the same as with Cole, the power forward who scored 26 goals last season but then signed a free-agent contract in July with the Montreal Canadiens.

"He's a different player than Erik," Staal said. Ruutu "is definitely a physical player and an aggressive player. I think when he's at his best he's forechecking hard, on the puck and turning pucks over and making quick little plays to the net.

"Erik is more straight-line speed down the wing. He opened the ice up that way. With Ruuts it's more chip and chase, and be physical and be strong. That's when he's more effective."

Staal wasn't knocking Ruutu. He was making a point about differing playing styles.

"Hopefully for him and for me we can get it going as a line and help us win some games," Staal said of Ruutu.

But one also has to wonder if Staal is being affected by the troubling post-concussion symptoms that have kept his brother, defenseman Marc Staal, out of the New York Rangers' lineup this season.

It was Eric Staal who slammed into Marc along the boards in a Feb. 22 game at the RBC Center, giving Marc a concussion. Marc Staal did play in the Rangers' stretch run and in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he could not shake the post-concussion symptoms during summer workouts or in training camp.

On Saturday, at the Canes' hotel in Winnipeg, Eric Staal picked up the sports section of The Globe & Mail newspaper to see a large color photo of the hit. The story's headline was "Blood Brothers: Marc Staal hasn't played since Eric gave him a concussion."

Another reminder.

"It wasn't what I was expecting when I opened up the paper," Staal said Monday. "You don't go to Canada very often and see something like that in the Globe & Mail."

Of the play, Staal said, "It's still hard to swallow. If you could take the hit back, you kind of would because it's my brother and someone I've very close to.

"But it happened. It's one of those plays you move forward from. He is and so am I."

Maurice said he has not sensed that Marc Staal's lingering health problems off the ice have influenced Eric's play on it.

"Over the course of Eric's career he's dealt with some very serious family issues and he's dealt with them very well," Maurice said. "It was a hockey play, a clean play. I'm sure he has that concern as you would for a family member, and he feels for him as a professional hockey player, but he certainly has not let on that it's bothering him."

Staal insisted again Monday that once the puck drops, it's all about the hockey.

"That's out of my mind," Staal said. "I still want to be aggressive and be physical. It's just one of those things that's very unfortunate."

NOTE: The Canes recalled rookie defenseman Justin Faulk from the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. Faulk, 19, played three NHL games before being assigned Wednesday to the Checkers.

Faulk's recall gives the Canes eight defensemen on the roster. Maurice said Faulk would not play tonight against Ottawa.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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