When Eric Staal returned to PNC Arena last season, he was still in something of a daze.
After playing more than 900 games for the Carolina Hurricanes, helping them win the 2006 Stanley Cup, Staal was sent to the New York Rangers just before the trade deadline. In his first game back at PNC Arena, the former Canes captain was given a video tribute, big ovation and, in the end, the Rangers a loss.
It was different Thursday. Staal was back again, but with the Minnesota Wild. There was no tribute, no special ovation. There was, however, another loss.
The Canes won 3-1, getting the winning goal from Victor Rask with 3:24 left in regulation and 30 saves from goalie Eddie Lack, including several terrific stops that enlivened the crowd of 10,894.
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Staal had a game-high six shots for the Wild. But Lack, playing the role of spoiler, stopped the Wild center – wearing that familiar No. 12 – all six times in what might have been Lack’s best performance of the season.
“I didn’t try to think about it too much, just focus on what I have to do,” Lack said. “Just stay in my bubble and focus on what I have to do.”
Asked what was inside that “bubble,” Lack smiled and said, “You don’t want to know.”
Probably not, but Lack was scrambling, flopping, diving, challenging, doing anything he could to keep the puck out of the net.
“I was on my (butt) a couple of times in the third period,” Lack said. “Sometimes, you need to be a little lucky, too, and that was the case today.”
In one rapid-fire sequence in the third period, Lack made consecutive saves against Staal, Charlie Coyle and Matt Dumba. Later, he stopped Staal on another two shots to keep it a 1-1 game.
Lack’s best save probably came early in the third, when he was down in the crease but lunged to his left to get his glove on a shot and rob Coyle.
Staal has 23 goals in a bounceback season for the Wild (43-20-6), who had lost four of game in a recent slide and were looking to end a five-game road trip with a victory. Minnesota was sluggish early, but got an energizing shorthanded goal from Mikael Grunlund in the first period after the Canes’ Derek Ryan had scored on the power play for a 1-0 lead.
Lack and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, an imposing 6-foot-6, wouldn’t allow anything else until Rask made a strong move out of the corner with the puck, wheeling around the Wild’s Jason Zucker to beat Dubnyk. The puck slowly eased across the goal line as Rask scored his 16th of the season.
Teuvo Teravanen’s empty-net goal sealed it for the Canes (29-27-12), who refuse to believe they can’t make a last-gasp push at a playoff spot — Carolina, with points in eight of the past 10 games, were eight points out of playoff position with 14 games remaining.
“Obviously we’re not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs,” Ryan said. “You never know. If we string together some wins here you never know what can happen.”
Ryan was recalled last season from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL after the Staal trade, reaching the NHL at age 29. His play earned him a new contract and the goal Thursday — Ryan backhanding the rebound of a Noah Hanifin shot — gave him his 11th of the season.
Both Hanifin and forward Jeff Skinner left the game Thursday with apparent injuries, but both returned. The Wild became a more physical team in the third period, but the Canes toughed it out.
“It was good. It was a dogfight out there,” Canes coach Bill Peters said.