The applause for the assist was louder than it was for the goal, Justin Williams' empty-netter that sealed the win for the Carolina Hurricanes. The pass ahead to Williams came from a player who could possibly have taken a poke at the empty net himself, but scooted it along to Williams along the boards instead. It came from Jordan Staal, in his first home game back in the lineup.
Staal is still only days removed from unspeakable loss, and only now can those on the outside understand the unimaginable burden under which he has played these past months. The rink became his refuge, and remains so now, and all his teammates can do is give him space and welcome him back into their brotherhood.
It has only been a week since his wife Heather gave birth to a stillborn daughter, one they knew had a terminal birth defect. Staal has carried that knowledge with him for months, and when the moment came, the team was willing to give him as much time away as he needed. That turned out to be three games.
It was nearly two. Staal showed up at the airport for the team's flight to Boston on Monday, only to return home. By Thursday, he was ready, and played in an emotional win over the Philadelphia Flyers. By Friday, he was back home for an equally emotional 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
“The only thing and the best thing we can do is create a positive atmosphere,” Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said. “Before he came back, we had lost six straight. He doesn't want to come into a locker room where we're down in the dumps and everyone's moping around. So we all kind of rallied around that to try to raise our spirits. Tonight was a really passionate game and a really big win for us.”
Staal has yet to comment publicly beyond the statement he and his wife released on Wednesday, and he was receiving treatment after Friday's win. His teammates didn't know how long he would be gone, although they accepted that he would take as long as he needed. If Jordan Staal had been carrying this with him for a long time, it settled upon the team more suddenly.
“It's such a tough situation,” Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. “It's things like that that put everything in perspective. The game seems so little when you think of it. As a teammate and a friend, you want to be someone that he can lean on first and foremost. The guys obviously love Jordan and love the whole entire Staal family. Seeing him come back in Philadelphia, was obviously exciting for us.”
If there was ever any doubting Staal's value to the Hurricanes, these last three games proved it beyond a reasonable doubt. He may struggle to finish chances around the net, but he covers acres of ice with his size and wingspan, he's diligent and he takes on the most difficult defensive assignments. Without him, the Hurricanes – already undermanned and undersized at center – were completely overwhelmed. Evgeni Malkin ran wild in a 6-1 Pittsburgh win, the first of three losses (one in overtime) by a combined 13-5 scoreline.
The Hurricanes were spiraling out of control, 0-4-2 in their last six, before Staal returned on Thursday. Now, after a pair of wins over division opponents, they're back in with a shout. They still face difficult odds to get back into the playoff hunt, but it's clear their chances are infinitely better with Staal in the lineup than without him – even weighed down by the emotional baggage he has lugged with him from game to game, week to week, month to month.
And then there was his assist, on what was essentially the final play of the game. If the game is a refuge, perhaps it will be cathartic. Perhaps he will sleep well, as well as he can, for the first time in a long time Friday night.
Life goes on for those left behind. The schedule ticks away, game by game by game. The Hurricanes need Jordan Staal as much as he needs them right now.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock