It has been the question asked in NHL circles over the course of the 2015-16 season:
Where will Eric Staal end up?
The rationale is understandable. The Hurricanes are a rebuilding franchise, and Staal is the kind of asset playoff-contending teams desperately covet. A power center who is due to become an unrestricted free agent. Really, it’s fait accompli.
But as the calendar year 2015 closes, the Hurricanes find themselves potentially in the Metropolitan Division playoff mix.
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So it was an opportunity lost as the Hurricanes dropped a 3-2 decision to the New Jersey Devils Tuesday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. The Hurricanes awake today nine points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division.
“This one definitely hurt us,” said Eric Staal, who scored two goals—both in the second period—off of Kris Versteeg assists. Cam Ward made 21 saves.
But it was David Schlemko’s floater from the half wall with 3:05 left in regulation that Ward would want back.
“Just some unfortunate bounces, some ugly goals,” Staal said. “That’s how you score nowadays and they were able to do that.”
The Hurricanes entered play four points behind New Jersey for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, and trailed Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for fifth by two points.
Delving further, Carolina began play nine points behind the free-falling Rangers for second in the division, and were eight points behind the third place Islanders. The Islanders jumped the idle Rangers for second place in the division with a 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
“We need to pick up points, wins,” Staal said. “It’s tight.”
Two-thirds of the top line—Staal and Versteeg—combined to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead 2:51 into the second. New Jersey center Sergey Kalinin turned the puck over to Versteeg at the blue line, to begin a counter attack. Versteeg found Staal under the right hashmarks with a pass, and the Hurricanes captain ripped a shot past New Jersey goaltender Keith Kinkaid.
Kinkaid finished with 26 saves.
The lead lasted until Bobby Farnham’s tying goal at 6:06.
Staal and Versteeg hooked up on Carolina’s second goal 3:40 later. Staal knocked the puck away from New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene, and it ended up behind the New Jersey goal. Versteeg dug it out to set up Staal for his second of the game and his seventh of the season.
“He’s been doing all the little things right and lots of chances—and that line has lots of chances—and tonight they get a couple. I’m sure they’ll continue to score,” Peters said of the top line, before praising his team’s play as a whole.
“I liked us through the final 40 minutes. We made a lot of plays, hung onto it, starting to become more of a puck possession team and generate more quality chances. I like where it’s headed.”
Kyle Palmieri tied the game 2-2 7:14 into the third with his 16th of the season. The Devils’ right wing redirected a Jon Merrill drive, and the goal stood following Peters’ coach’s challenge.
Nine minutes and 41 seconds later, Schlemko—who came into the game with three goals this season and 12 for his career—sent the Hurricanes to their fifth regulation loss in 13 games this month. Carolina ends the December portion of the schedule on New Year’s Eve, hosting Eastern Conference-leading at PNC Arena.
“I like the way that our team is playing,” Staal said. “I like the way we’ve been playing for a month. If we keep doing that, there’s over half a season left and we’ll get back into the mix sooner rather than later.”