RALEIGH — Eric Staal got to Raleigh Center Ice a little after 10 a.m. Wednesday, throwing on his skates for his first informal workout with some of his Carolina Hurricanes teammates.
"Always good to see the big guy back," Canes forward Pat Dwyer said.
Staal skated and stick-handled. He shot the puck, played some two-on-two and had a few laughs with the guys.
If you didn't know Staal had suffered a major knee injury in May, after taking a dangerous knee-on-knee hit, you would have thought it was just another day at the rink for the Canes captain.
Staal didn't wear a knee brace or any tape. Nor, he said, has he had any setbacks during his physical rehabilitation.
"It felt good," he said of the knee after the on-ice work. "It has been no issue here the last little while. It's good to be back and it felt strong. I feel good."
Staal was pretty angry after the injury. Competing for Canada in the IIHF World Championship in Sweden, he was hit on the right knee by Swedish defenseman Alex Edler, who plays in the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks.
Staal suffered a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament. Edler was suspended by the International Ice Hockey Federation, which called the collision reckless and dangerous.
Staal, 28, didn't need surgery but his rehab started painfully slow. When he returned to Raleigh in early June to help unveil and model the Canes' new-look uniforms, he was limping.
Staal noted that on his first time on a stationary bike, he couldn't make a full turn of the pedal.
"It was slowly rocking back and forth, basically, until I got to that point," he said. "Then you slowly get more movement every day and every week it gets a little better, then you start amping up the workouts a little."
It helped that goaltender Cam Ward went through similar rehab for a similar knee injury. Ward had a third-degree MCL sprain of his left knee during a March 3 game in Florida, prematurely ending his season, and he could offer advice and support for Staal.
"It was unfortunate to see that happen to him," Ward said. "I'm just happy to see him skating and working out with us and looking good."
Finally, about two weeks ago, Staal took to the ice for the first time in Thunder Bay, Ont. There was some apprehension, he said, but not for long.
"I was a little tentative and nervous to see how it felt," he said. "There were five other guys skating and I just stuck to my one end and just did some crossovers and shot the puck. I actually felt fine. I felt like I normally would feel.
"It was a good thing and I was back on the ice two days later. it's been good since. I'm feeling really good now."
That's a good thing for the Hurricanes. Staal centered one of the most productive lines in the NHL last season, with Jiri Tlusty and Alex Semin on the wings.
To reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009, the Canes likely will need a big year from Staal, their leading scorer last season with 53 points (18 goals, 35 assists).
Staal hopes to play for Canada in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as Canada defends the gold medal Staal helped win for his country in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. He'll attend the Team Canada Olympic orientation camp that begins Sunday in Calgary, as will brother Jordan Staal, who is about to begin his second season with the Canes.
Carolinas training camp begins Sept. 11 and the season-opener is Oct. 4 against the Detroit Red Wings at PNC Arena. The Hurricanes will be in a new eight-team division -- the Metropolitan.
"Every time you get back, you get the excitement going for a new year," Staal said.
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