Eric Staal has a hockey game Thursday at PNC Arena, and while much will be the same, much will be strange, different, foreign.
Staal will wake up at his house in North Raleigh, say goodbye to his wife, Tanya, and three boys, and head to the arena for the morning skate. He knows the routine and knows the way, having made the drive so many times the past 13 years.
But once at the arena, he won’t park in the Carolina Hurricanes’ players lot. Once inside the arena, he won’t turn right toward the Canes’ locker room. He’ll go left, down to the cramped locker room reserved for the visitors, reserved for the New York Rangers.
Staal will do something Thursday night he has never done before during his NHL career: try to beat the Carolina Hurricanes. Should Staal and the Rangers do that, they will further enhance New York’s playoff position and possibly all but end the Canes’ slim playoff chances.
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“There will be a lot of unique, different emotions in general, because of being there and being there so long,” Staal said Tuesday.
Staal was the Canes captain from January 2010 until Feb. 28, the last time he was at PNC Arena. In what became a surreal chain of events, he arrived for a power-play meeting and told he was in the Canes’ lineup against the St. Louis Blues, only to be summoned by general manager Ron Francis and told the only thing needed to complete a trade to the Rangers was waiving the no-trade clause in his contract.
Soon, he was leaving – PNC Arena, the Hurricanes, Raleigh.
In leaving the Canes, he left behind a younger brother, Jordan Staal. Waiting in New York was his other NHL-playing brother, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal.
The next morning, he slipped into a blue Rangers jersey, causing a different sensation.
“I definitely had a moment when I put it on,” Staal said. “I don’t think anyone noticed, but I did myself, just putting it on, because of how long I had been in another place, and I had never really thought of ever putting on another jersey.
“I got drafted by the Hurricanes and it was where I was going to play. It was always that way. I feel like I’m a loyal person … and I signed a contract, a long-term deal, with the Hurricanes. Obviously the way it worked out, to be moved, it was different. But at the same time there was an excitement there I could feel right away, and I know there’s going to be some better days for me personally and this new group I’m with.”
Game One of the playoffs will present a whole different set of emotions that quite frankly it has been too long since I experienced.
New York Rangers’ Eric Staal
The system used by Canes coach Bill Peters differs from that used by Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. It has been a matter of adjustment, of finding his way. He still wears No. 12, as he did with Carolina, but without the “C,” accepting a new role.
Being the Canes captain the past six seasons as the team failed to reach the playoffs, as he put it, “Wears on you.” With the Rangers, there’s both the freshness of being with a new team but also in being on one that’s winning, that’s headed to the playoffs.
“Game One of the playoffs will present a whole different set of emotions that quite frankly it has been too long since I experienced,” Staal said.
Staal, used at center and left wing, had a goal and assist in his third game with the Rangers, then one assist in the next nine games, continuing the offensive struggles he had with the Canes. That changed Sunday, when Staal had two goals, albeit in a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers (43-24-9), second in the Metropolitan Division with 95 points, have not played since Sunday and allowed Staal to return to Raleigh early to be with his family.
“Every game, every day, I’m feeling more comfortable, more confident in the way I can help this team,” Staal said.
Staal might not feel as comfortable Thursday. The Canes will have a video tribute to a player who helped them win a Stanley Cup in 2006. In net for the Canes could be goalie Cam Ward, an old friend and another hero from the ’06 Cup run.
And Jordan Staal.
“It will be a weird feeling, seeing him on the other side,” Eric Staal said.
Eric Staal, 31, is due to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. There was no time on Feb. 28, he said, to talk with Francis about a possible return to Carolina.
“I’m just focused on this year with the Rangers and bringing everything I can to this team,” he said. “We’ll worry about that stuff at the end of the season and into the summer.”