The Carolina Hurricanes said “Thank You, Eric” in every way but one Thursday.
They wouldn’t let him leave with a victory.
On an emotional night when Eric Staal made his return to PNC Arena, in a game in which the New York Rangers could have clinched a playoff spot, the Canes were the winners, 4-3.
It was a bittersweet game for Staal, the former Canes captain who was traded Feb. 28 to the Rangers. While appreciating a video tribute for him in the first period, while warmed by the standing ovation that followed it, Staal was after a win – only to be denied.
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Jeff Skinner and rookie forward Patrick Brown each had a goal and assist, Justin Faulk scored and Victor Rask gave the Canes the winning goal on a power-play score a little more than nine minutes into the third period.
Staal almost scored on the Rangers’ first shot of the game, but goalie Cam Ward smothered the puck. During the timeout that followed, highlights of Staal’s career were shown on the videoboard and the cheers and chants began.
“It was pretty neat, a lot of emotion, a lot of memories at that moment,” Staal said. “It’s tough, during the game, to be honest, trying to focus on playing.”
Asked if he was glad the night was over, Staal nodded, saying, “For sure. There was a big buildup coming up to it. Now we’ve got to worry about being better next game.”
The Rangers (43-25-9) needed a victory in regulation or the overtime period to nail down the playoff berth, while the Canes (34-28-16) trail the Philadelphia Flyers — who hold the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference — by five points.
The Rangers had won 14 of the past 15 games against Carolina before Thursday, often with goalie Henrik Lundqvist a wall in net.
But Brown beat Lundqvist in the first period with a shot from the right circle after Skinner’s hard cross-corner dump-in off the boards. It was Brown’s first NHL goal, leaving the former Boston College player beaming.
Faulk’s second-period shot from the point found its way past Lundqvist for a 2-2 tie – rookie Sergey Tolchinsky, in his NHL debut, getting an assist – and Skinner’s 27th goal of the season early in the third on a tip made it a 3-3 game.
Rask scored after the Rangers’ J.T. Miller was called for high-sticking. After Faulk’s heavy shot from the outside, Rask collected the puck in the left circle and scored his 21st and fifth in the past five games.
The Rangers scored all three in the second period as Mats Zuccarello rifled a shot from the circle, then Rick Nash and Chris Kreider powered past defenseman Brett Pesce to beat Ward, who finished with 24 saves.
Brown, who scored his first NHL goal, was given the fireman’s helmet as the Canes’ game MVP and named the first star. "But this night belonged to the Staals,” he said.
Eric Staal and Ward were the two remaining holdovers on the Canes from the 2006 Stanley Cup champions. After 12 seasons and more than 900 games, after establishing franchise records in nearly every category since the team’s relocation to Raleigh in 1997, Staal was dealt away in a trade deemed to be in the best interest of the team moving forward.
While Eric Staal joined brother Marc Staal with the Rangers, left behind was Jordan Staal, who was traded to the Canes from the Pittsburgh Penguins in June 2012.
And Thursday’s game?
“It was fun for me, and I’m sure fun for Eric, as well, although I’m sure he’d like to have a different result,” Jordan Staal said. “I’m sure a lot of things were running through his mind. The tribute was very well done and he’s done a lot of great things for this organization.”
Eric Staal arrived at the arena Thursday morning to see a “Thank You Eric” photo collage in the hallway leading to the Rangers’ locker room.
“That was cool,” he said.
But not the game. This night, that belonged to the Canes.