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Staal, Canes determined to fight as long as possible

Canes’ Williams, Staal remain positive down 3-0

Justin Williams and Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes address media on May 15, 2019, a day before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. Trailing the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the series, the Canes players remain hopeful of a comeback.
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Justin Williams and Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes address media on May 15, 2019, a day before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. Trailing the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the series, the Canes players remain hopeful of a comeback.

A decade ago, Jordan Staal experienced a playoff handshake line at PNC Arena that was bittersweet.

The last thing he wanted was to be in another one on Thursday.

The Carolina Hurricanes went into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins trailing 3-0 in the series. Another loss and the Canes season would end, but there was the belief there still was enough determination, confidence and stamina in the group to extend the series and their season.

“We’ve gone to the well and found something in there every time,” Staal said Wednesday. “We’ve got a young group and an eager group willing to show up every night. We’re going to fight as much as we can until it’s done.”

Staal and the Canes already have much to be proud of from a season in which so much went right and so much was accomplished. The Canes overachieved in reaching the conference finals, outlasting the Washington Capitals in seven games -- what were the odds of that? -- and then sweeping the New York Islanders in the second round.

That’s a lot of good for a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2009, that had become an NHL after-thought, that had the lowest payroll in the league.

In 2009, Staal was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Just 20, he helped the Pens sweep Carolina in the Eastern finals, finishing it off with a pair of wins on the Canes’ home ice.

Happy to have won, it hurt shaking the hand of the Canes’ Eric Staal, the Carolina captain and Jordan’s oldest brother, after the fourth game. But the Pens were on their way to the Cup and beating the Canes, in Jordan Staal’s case, a necessity. It was shake hands and move on.

Flash forward a few years. Traded to the Canes in June 2012, joining his brother, Jordan Staal signed a 10-year contract extension, expecting to be a part of a string of playoff teams with the Canes. Carolina had won the Stanley Cup in 2006, when Eric Staal was the leading scorer in the playoffs. Jordan got his ring in 2009. Why not another, together?

There would be no such storybook stuff. Eric Staal, long Carolina’s franchise player, was traded in February 2016. Until this season, there would be no more playoffs for the Canes and Jordan Staal, as much as anyone was frustrated, shouldering the responsibility for that absence.

Staal has faced a number of personal challenges -- a broken leg, concussions. Last year, Jordan and his wife, Heather, mourned the death of an infant daughter who suffered from a terminal birth defect.

“Jordan has had a tough year and a lot has happened in his hockey life and his personal life in the last year or so,” Canes captain Justin Williams said Sunday. “I think there was a little void in Jordan and it was playoff hockey. I’m seeing first-hand how much it means to him. Having taken away for that long and being as competitive as he is and having the will to win, not being able to play for the ultimate trophy is tough. Since the playoffs have started I’ve seen the fire come out of him even more.”

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) talks with Jordan Staal (11) during practice on Monday, May 6, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

When the Canes win games, Staal can look 10 years younger, his face brighter and his demeanor almost playful. Let them lose and he can have a somber 1,000-yard stare, as if shouldering all the responsibility for the loss.

That’s the way it was after the Canes’ 5-2 loss Thursday to the Bruins in Game 1. Staal’s boarding penalty early in the third period resulted in a power-play goal for the Bruins, who tied the score 2-2 and changed the flow of the game.

No one in the Canes lineup played well for any stretch in Game 2 at TD Garden -- Staal’s ice time of 14:30 was his lowest of the playoffs. Back in Raleigh and on home ice for Game 3, the Canes put everything they had into it only to have goalie Tuukka Rask come big for the Bruins in a 2-1 win. Staal had a more routine 21:36 of ice time.

A loss Thursday by the Canes would have had them shaking hands with the Bruins, the customary sendoff after a series. That’s one line Staal and the Canes hoped to avoid as long as possible.

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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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