RALEIGH — For the first time this season, Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes will be on the ice tonight with brother Marc Staal of the New York Rangers.
The game should be intense. Eric Staal and the Canes are playing their best hockey of the season. Marc Staal and the Rangers sit atop the NHL's Eastern Conference and look the part of Stanley Cup contenders.
But the game at the RBC Center also could be a finishing point of sorts for the brothers Staal.
A little more than a year ago, on Feb. 22 at the RBC Center, Eric Staal collided with his brother along the boards. It was a huge hit that Eric delivered, the impact startling given the two involved, and Marc Staal suffered a concussion.
Staal, an All-Star defenseman for the Rangers last year, missed games but returned to play later in the regular season and playoffs. Post-concussion symptoms persisted during the summer and in training camp, keeping him out of games - including the Rangers' first two against Carolina - until the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.
"It will be nice to get out there and compete like we normally have," Eric Staal said Wednesday. "He's playing a lot more and starting to feel more comfortable. They've got a good team and a good thing going."
After a brutal start to the season that cost coach Paul Maurice his job, the Canes have a good thing going now under coach Kirk Muller. Carolina is 24-26-13 overall, but went 6-1-4 in February and is 11-5-7 since Jan. 1.
Eric Staal has had a lot to do with that turnaround. In the past 25 games, Staal has 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists), and now has a nine-game point streak after his goal and two assists Tuesday in the Canes' 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators.
"I feel like I'm playing pretty strong right now," Staal said. "I feel like I have a good step with my stride and being on the attack. I'm playing more of a north-south game and that's my style. It seems to be going my way right now and I want to keep that going and help our team win games."
While Staal has a minus-15 plus/minus rating, he's plus-7 over the past 25 games. He has continued to be strong in the faceoff circle, is a willing defender and someone who often sets the tone in practice.
"Stats are stats and he took it on the chin early on with the plus-minus," Muller said. "He's got a lot of pride. He's fought back in his consistent play five on five.
"What I like about him is the way he's playing and getting points. He's earning it. He's playing hard. And the good players, they make guys around them better and that's what he's done."
'It evens out'
The Hurricanes failed to reach the playoffs last season, losing a win-or-else game to Tampa Bay to close the regular season. Staal, as team captain, said he probably tried to shoulder too much of the responsibility, both for the Canes falling short and for trying to get them off to a strong start this season.
Instead, the Canes stumbled and Staal struggled.
"My personality is to compete, to work and to try," he said. "I think I was taking on a little bit more than I should have. But we missed the playoffs by two points, and being the captain on this team and wanting to make sure we didn't have that happen again was a lot on my mind over the summer and a lot coming into (training) camp.
"Then I didn't have a great feeling and we didn't build that inner confidence as a team. It started to go the other direction, which was unfortunate because a good man (Maurice) lost his job and no one felt worse than me. But things like that happen in this business and I tried to refocus and regroup, and was able to do that."
Staal said he had "good conversations" with general manager Jim Rutherford and Muller, which helped. Soon after becoming coach in late-November, Muller said he didn't want Staal believing he had to be "Superman every night." Just go hard and be the team leader.
That's what Staal has done, and seemingly the breaks now are going his way. In Tuesday's game, he scored an easy goal when the puck bounced off Jeff Skinner's chest and landed at Staal's feet with an open net.
"Plops right in front of me," Staal said. "Those weren't happening at the beginning of the year. I was trying to tell myself it evens out. Now it's going a good way and I want to keep it going."