RALEIGH — There are a number of opinions on why Jordan Staal has been playing better of late for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Canes coach Kirk Muller said the big center is taking a more straight-ahead approach in his play.
Winger Nathan Gerbe likes the way Staal is moving his feet.
Another linemate, Patrick Dwyer, said Staal appears to have put aside all the expectations placed on him and is just playing hockey.
Staal has his own take. He mostly credits having Gerbe and Dwyer on his line.
“The way Patty (Dwyer) is skating and ‘Gerbs’ is playing, they’re making me look good,” he said Thursday.
The line came up big Tuesday in the Canes’ 2-1 victory against the Colorado Avalanche. Staal and Dwyer each had a goal and assist, and Gerbe had two assists. They also did the dirty work defensively, muzzling the Avs’ high-octane line centered by Matt Duchene.
Muller said Staal played his best game of the season. On Thursday, Muller said the same about Dwyer, whom he said has recovered from a shoulder injury.
“They can skate, they compete,” Muller said of the line. “They scored and all of a sudden they got that little extra life to their game.”
Staal’s goal, which gave the Canes a 1-0 lead in the first period, came off a rebound and was his second in the past four games. Against the Philadelphia Flyers last week, he took a pass from brother Eric Staal and banged in a shot in front to tie the score in the final minute of regulation, and the Canes won in overtime.
“I’m just trying to focus on moving my feet more and getting to the dirty areas around the net,” Staal said. “I’m trying to do all the little things to help us win but trying to get around that net to get some goals.”
That’s where Muller wants the 6-foot-4, 220-pound forward. Or, as he put it, “Using his size down low, hanging on to the puck, being hard to play against that way.”
Muller said last season Staal appeared to lose the identity he first forged with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He said Staal was a “little too cute” on the offensive end and not the big net presence he can be.
“He’s big but he can skate,” Gerbe said. “It’s tough to keep up with him when he’s going.”
Staal was going against the Avs, strong and active in all three zones. A good play in the neutral zone by Staal led to Gerbe setting up Dwyer for what would be the winning goal 26 seconds into the second period.
Staal’s first multipoint game of the season helped the Hurricanes push their record to 3-0-1 in their five-game homestand, which ends Friday against the Anaheim Ducks. After rebounding from a five-game skid, they’re 7-7-4 overall, moving back up in the Metropolitan Division standings and getting some injured players back.
Muller said forward Jeff Skinner, who returned to practice Thursday, might play against the Ducks. Skinner has missed the past eight games with an upper-body injury.
Staal’s trade by the Pens to Carolina in June 2012 was a blockbuster, as was the 10-year, $60 million contract extension he soon signed. But the NHL lockout postponed his Canes debut and he never really hit his stride during the 48-game season.
Staal went nine games this season before scoring his first goal. He’s now on a line with two speedy wingers and picking up points while continuing his solid two-way play.
“It’s a tough situation when you come in like he did and feel like there’s all these expectations to do this and that,” Dwyer said. “When they brought him in, they didn’t want him to be any more than Jordan Staal. I think he’s kind of settled into that role and he’s kind of lifted that weight off his shoulders.”
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