NEW YORK — Eric Staal knew it was coming, knew the media would be waiting, knew what questions would be asked.
For the first time this season, the Carolina Hurricanes are facing the New York Rangers. The game is Friday at Madison Square Garden and Staal will be the main focus because of a player not on the ice - his brother, Marc.
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal has not played this season. He continues to struggle with post-concussion symptoms stemming from the big hit he took from Eric in a February game at the RBC Center.
Eric was peppered with questions about Marc on Tuesday in Newark, N.J., before the New Jersey Devils game. He may get more today after the Canes' practice at Chelsea Piers and at Friday's morning skate.
"You never want to get hit in any spot like that ... but he was in a vulnerable position and I finished my check on him," Eric said of the collision. "You never want to get hit and all, and when it's your brother it only makes it worse. I'm sure it was. It would have been the same if it was me."
Marc, who had his head lowered, dropped to the ice after the hit. He played for the Rangers the rest of the regular season and in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but began experiencing headaches and other symptoms during offseason workouts and the problems have persisted.
The Rangers are not sure when Staal will be able to resume play. Marc Staal has been unavailable to the media.
Eric said he has talked with Marc regularly and that the two planned to get together this week.
"He's upset about the hit but he understands it's a hockey game and things happen," he said.
Canes coach Paul Maurice said it might be therapeutic for Eric Staal to come to the New York area, to face the media and get it out of his system.
"He's a big, strong man," Maurice said. "This isn't a guy who's hiding in the corner. He'll answer your questions.
"I think if it had been a bad hit it might have affected him more. I think they had delivered the same kind of hits on each other every single time they'd played each other."
Eric again said the situation with Marc is not affecting his play or his slow start this season, saying firmly, "It has nothing to do with it." But he did concede it has been hard on the Staal family.
"(Marc) has a passion and a love for the game and he can't play right now," Staal said. "It's tough for him, it's tough for me and it's tough for everybody in the family ... They feel for Marc and they feel for me, being put in that spot.
"But he'll recover fully. He'll be back playing like himself."
Eric hopes to be doing the same soon. Try as he might, the Canes captain hasn't been able to make things happen.
He isn't scoring goals. He isn't being a big difference in games. He isn't leading his team to victories, which bothers him most.
"I haven't been able to find a groove offensively yet," he said. "I've had a lot of looks, a lot of opportunities and chances around the net and just haven't been hitting the back of the net.
"I take a lot of responsibility. I feel I'm a big part of this team and a big part of this organization. I've been here a long time and take pride in this group. I know I'm a leader on this team and I need to be better."
The right formula
Maurice tried Jeff Skinner on a wing with Staal, teaming the Canes' two best offensive players. Maurice went away from that combination, then back to it, and said Wednesday he would change the line again.
With Jussi Jokinen expected back from a leg injury that has sidelined the forward the past three games - all Canes losses - Maurice said he likely would have Skinner play the left wing with Jokinen at center and Tuomo Ruutu on the right side.
Of having Staal play with Skinner and Chad LaRose, Maurice said, "I didn't see enough offense out of that line and I saw a whole lot of bad defense. It was the same thing at the start of the year. You'd like to do it to get it going, but I don't think it works."
Through 15 games, Staal has three goals - all on power plays - and two assists. He has a team-high 55 shots to Skinner's 51, but Skinner leads the Canes in goals (six) and assists (eight).
"Every player goes through tough times," Skinner said. "Guys go through scoring droughts and guys get in slumps, and you can't just judge a player just on that. Especially Eric, who sort of dominates games for us.
"He does so much more than put points up for us. He logs huge minutes on the team's top line against the top (defensive) pairs. He wins big faceoffs. He's physical. It's those things he's bringing to the game. He's in a little bit of a slump but I think that's what makes him a good leader."