RALEIGH — The applause is coming now, even on shifts when Eric Staal doesn't score. The way the Carolina Hurricanes played Friday, after the way they and their captain have played for three weeks now, there's plenty to get excited about.
The killer, unfortunately, is that this has all come too late to save Carolina's season, at least as far as the playoffs are concerned. The Hurricanes have effectively been eliminated from postseason contention since the day before Kirk Muller won his first game as coach of the Hurricanes in December.
Still, when the Hurricanes play the way they did in Friday's 3-0 win over the Washington Capitals, there's no question their fans are seeing what they come hoping to see, from the Hurricanes and their captain. If only it hadn't taken so long to get to this point.
"That's the biggest thing," Staal said. "As a team and as a group, we're playing a much more consistent brand (of hockey). We haven't won every game, but we've felt good about our losses, if that makes any sense. We've competed hard and been in every game."
It wasn't long ago that a few of Staal's shifts provoked uncomfortable murmurs, if not actual booing. His start to the season was unacceptable by any standard, especially his own. That's all behind him now.
Attribute it to whatever you want: his brother Marc's return to health, increased focus on the part of Staal himself or maybe the fact that the Hurricanes are finally playing, under Muller, the kind of hockey a player of Staal's caliber can sink his teeth into.
On Dec. 29, two days after Marc was finally cleared for contact, fully recovered from the concussion his brother's hit caused last February, Eric broke out. He hasn't slowed down yet. Staal had two goals and an assist that night. In only one of the 10 games since has he failed to record a point.
"I honestly don't feel like I'm playing that much differently," Staal said. "I think it's a combination of probably everything."
He's even contributing on the penalty kill. Staal set up Jussi Jokinen's short-handed steal Friday, pickpocketing John Carlson in front of his own net, but his play on a later penalty kill might have been even more impressive. Fighting his way up the boards to Cam Ward's left, Staal worked the puck past Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson and Alexander Semin, one after the other, to get the puck across the blue line.
Staal's improved play of late has been a major factor in the Hurricanes' improved competitiveness, and he has the numbers to show for it. Over the past 11 games, Staal has five goals and 10 assists.
Perhaps more important for a player who's minus-21 on the year, he's plus-1 over that span while the Hurricanes are 5-4-2, and two of those regulation losses were one-goal games.
"I'm hoping they believe they can play with anybody," Muller said. "But they have to play hard, and we have to do it the hard way. We can't take shortcuts. We have to work at every little detail of the game. I think they understand now, if they do all those details, they're going to succeed."
At this point, there's no question the Hurricanes are turning the corner, almost certainly too late for this season, but not too late to set the tone for the next. Either way, Staal is playing the way they need him to play.