The Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins were in overtime Thursday and Bruins forward David Pastrnak had the puck in the Carolina zone, looking to make a play.
The Canes’ Jordan Staal derailed that plan. Leaning his 6-foot-4, 230-pound body into Pastrnak, he forced a weak pass that Canes forward Elias Lindholm picked off, creating an offensive opportunity in transition for Staal.
Staal didn’t score but the Canes soon did, as Phil Di Giuseppe followed up a Jeff Skinner shot to score for a 3-2 road victory at TD Garden. Just 14 games remain in the regular season, and the Canes (31-26-11) still believe a playoff spot can be won.
Staal’s defensive efforts are almost taken for granted. He’s the Canes’ best checking center, often the one on the ice matched up against a Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks or Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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Or Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins.
Bergeron has won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward the past two season and three of the past four. Toews broke Bergeron’s Selke string, winning in 2013.
But what about Staal? Given the season he’s having, shouldn’t his name be mentioned in any Selke talk?
“Oh, easily, no question,” Canes assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour said this week. “He plays against the best every night. Check the score sheet of the other team’s best players and they’re hardly ever on it or not a big factor.
“Why is that? Everywhere else they’re playing they’re putting up points but when they play us they don’t. I’d put him up with any of the guys you’d mention for that award. If we got more attention he’d get more attention, but he kind of flies under the radar.”
On any given night someone can get the best of you. You can get burned a lot quicker when you’re in that role.
Canes’ Jordan Staal on penalty killing
Brind’Amour was awarded the Selke in 2005-06, when the Canes won the Stanley Cup, and again in 2005-07. Like Staal, he went into games realizing his every shift might be vital to winning or losing.
Staal has been strong at even strength and has a team-best plus-5 rating. He’s a big part of the Canes’ penalty-killing units that rank eighth in the NHL and has been used on the power play.
“It definitely makes you sure that you’re on your game and ready to skate and ready to work,” Staal said. “On any given night someone can get the best of you. You can get burned a lot quicker when you’re in that role.”
Staal hasn’t been burned a lot. His line was on the ice in the third period Thursday when Pastrnak tied the score, but Staal kept Bergeron’s line in check most of the game when matched up.
“It is a challenge but it’s what makes it fun, too,” Brind’Amour said. “You’re such a huge factor in the success of the team. You need a player like that on your team.”
There are few things more reassuring for a hockey coach than being able to send out a big-bodied center who can skate and defend and has offensive capability, as well.
“You don’t have to worry about the next 45 seconds,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “That’s a very nice luxury to have.”
The chief criteria for Selke consideration is that the forward excel in the “defensive aspects of the game.” But many in the NHL believe the Selke, awarded since 1978, has become more a trophy that reflects good two-way play, not just the forward’s defensive ability.
Staal was eighth in the Selke voting in 2011-12, his final year with the Pens before being traded to Carolina. This season has been his best with the Canes – he has 17 goals, is tied for second on the team in points (40) and also has won 58.5 percent of his faceoffs.
“He’s skating and involved offensively and not just focused on defense,” Peters said. “He’s making sure while he’s out there the other team has to spend time in their defensive zone. For me, he’s been one of the most impactful guys (in the NHL) in the second half of the season.”
Brind’Amour isn’t the only Selke winner in the Canes’ organization. General manager Ron Francis was awarded the Selke in 1994 while with the Pens.
“There are a lot of great players who have won that award,” Staal said. “I’ll just play my game and if that goes toward that award it would be a great honor.
“But we’re playing some good hockey … and hopefully we will be in every match. Finding a way to get points is what we’ve been doing, what we want.”