Sports

Canes can draw so much from a healthy Staal

The situation was dire Tuesday for the Carolina Hurricanes when Jordan Staal stepped into the faceoff circle at PNC Arena.

Two minutes left in regulation. The Pittsburgh Penguins leading by a goal. A tough defeat close at hand.

Across the dot from Staal was Sidney Crosby. As Staal would say, there’s none craftier, perhaps none better in the circle in big moments than the Pens captain.

“His hand-eye (coordination) everyone sees around the net and in his goal-scoring, but he picks them out of that dot cleaner than I’ve ever seen,” Staal said Thursday.

But in what was the Canes’ most important faceoff of the season -- at least to date -- Staal didn’t cleanly win the draw in the right circle but was able to get enough of the puck to nudge it toward forward Nino Niederreiter.

“All I’m worried about is trying to get it to an area where we can get it back and maybe get a shot,” Staal said Thursday. “I got it close enough to give us a chance. Nino jumped on it pretty quick.”

Niederreiter got the puck outside to defenseman Dougie Hamilton, whose shot handcuffed goalie Matt Murray, the puck popping free. There was Justin Williams, the Canes captain ready to pounce, score and give the Canes a 2-2 tie.

Two minutes away from coming away with no points, the Canes would claim the two points after a 3-2 shootout win.

“That was one of those that worked out great,” Staal said. “Obviously a big goal and I was glad to be a part of it.”

Those are the kind of plays from the veteran center Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour often mentioned was missing as Staal was sidelined 32 of 34 games recovering from a concussion. Staal not only is the Canes’ most physical and best checking center but their most effective faceoff man.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Justin Williams (14) shoots the puck past Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (30) to tie the game late in the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, March 19, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. Hurricanes won 3-2 by shootout. ( Karl B DeBlaker AP

As Brind’Amour has said, it’s an often underrated facet of the game. The linesman drops the puck, two guys whack at it and one team gains possession. Those possessions add up.

“Everything matters and puck possession is huge,” Brind’Amour, one of the great faceoff men in NHL history, said Thursday. “You can actually draw things up. It’s a static start. That’s really the only place in the whole game where you can try things and see if it works out.”

Staal, who was 10-7 on draws against the Pens, has won more than 55 percent of his faceoffs this season, giving Brind’Amour some options on plays that can be run. Centers Lucas Wallmark and Greg McKegg are both close to 51 percent, and Sebastian Aho 49 percent on draws after going 15-12 in the Pittsburgh game during his 28-plus minutes on the ice.

The Canes through Wednesday’s games ranked 23rd in the NHL on faceoffs at 48.9 percent. Tampa Bay, which faced the Canes on Thursday at PNC Arena, was ninth at 51 percent -- another strong component on a team that has many.

In the Canes’ 3-1 loss at Tampa Bay on Jan. 10, without Staal in the lineup, the Lightning had a 36-26 edge in the circle as Tyler Johnson won nine of 10 draws.

“It’s one of those under-valued things,” Hamilton said. “Everyone who knows hockey appreciates the importance. A lot of shifts start with faceoffs, which decide if you start with the puck or not. It’s important to have a good faceoff guy and a good faceoff team.”

And having Staal back the past 11 games? The Canes have gone 8-2-1 as Staal had two goals, five assists and a plus-6 rating,

“It’s a comfort when you know you have a player you can play against anybody, and in all situations,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s what he has done his whole career and he’s good at it. I still think there’s a lot of offense to his game that hasn’t shown up on the scoresheet. But every night you look up and he’s in the chances, he’s right there.”

He’s in the circle with Crosby, trying to nudge the Canes to a victory.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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