Sunday, May 13, 2012

For Eric Staal it's all About Moving on in the Playoffs

By Larry Wigge

They were glued to the TV set at the Henry and Linda Staal's house in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The same was true at the Raleigh, N.C., house of Eric Staal, where brother Jordan was enjoying the game. That's just the way it is when one of the Staal boys is in action.

When hockey is being played ... you wouldn't dare talk about changing the channel. The house, let's just say, was rockin.

The New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals were in a tight Game 5. Actually, it had gotten to nail biting time for the Staal -- the Capitals leading 2-1 with time, tick, tick, ticking down.

On a power-play with time becoming essential, Brad Richards rallied for the tying goal with 6.6 second left to play -- sending the game into overtime. The four-minute penalty to Washington was still in force in the overtime. And ...

John Mitchell won an important faceoff deep in the Capitals zone -- and the puck ended up back on Marc Staal's stick. A shot rifled low through traffic hit the back of the net behind Washington goalie Braden Holtby 1:35 into sudden death and Staal's drive went in.

"It was like a play every kid dreams about growing up," said a surprised Staal. "It wasn't a set play or anything off the draw, just a good clean draw and guys went to the net and he Holtby couldn't see it. There were two Capitals players coming out at me ... so I just wanted to get between them and hit it as hard as I could. I think it deflected off one of them one of them. It had eyes going into the back of the net."

"He's a big piece to our team right now and to the future," John Tortorella said as the coach met the media on the eve of camp. "From a coach's point of view, to have one of your top players, and a big part of your core, not miss anything that's a big thing."

"No one understands that injury unless you go through it," said Richards, who battled a concussion of his own while playing in Dallas last season. "He's enjoying this fresh start in the playoffs.

"He's playing so much better ... and I'm sure he'll continue to get better."

Marc Staal is an excellent skater and defender. Defensively, he is an adept shot blocker, and penalty killer. Offensively, he is a smart passer who makes the intelligent plays to his teammates. On this night, Marc put an exclamation point on this game -- he had one goal and one assists and also broke up a Capitals' 3-on-1 rush in the third period to keep the Rangers within striking distance. 

"Marc had always been a shutdown defenseman," Eric Staal explained by phone. "He's been more than that ... he's been a big game performer. A big game player with much more to give."

Then two games later, the Rangers were in the same predicament Game 7, with Staal playing 26 minutes and 55 seconds -- contributing two shots, three hits, five blocked shots -- as the New York won 2-1.

This time, all of the non-playing members of the Staal household were in Thunder Bay.

"Jordan (Pittsburgh in 2009) and I (with Carolina in 2006) have won the Stanley Cup," said Eric. "Now, it's Marc's turn. We would love nothing better to have Marc get his name of the Cup ..."

Eric Staal thought long and hard about the sentence he failed to complete. He claims he didn't know it was his kid brother, Marc, there along the boards with his head down, fighting another Carolina Hurricane player for the puck in the February 22, 2010 game against the New York Rangers.

Things happen fast in a hockey game, everyone later sighed heavily and agreed. Eric just saw a player in a white shirt. And he hit him. Hard. The raw force of the collision is clear even from still images of that February 22 check, not just the gasp of the crowd that comes across loud and clear. The impact lifted Rangers defenseman off his feet, snapped back his head and sent him pinwheeling to the ice face down, with his helmet askew.

"It's tough for him; it's tough for me; it's tough for everyone in the family," Eric explained. "But ..."

He said he wasn't haunted or paralyzed by regrets.

"Has nothing to do with it," Staal said emphatically. "I've ... just not being able to find the groove offensively.

"As far as that being on my mind, it's not even close. Hopefully for me, I'll stay with it, get it turned around and help us win games."

Henry Staal has seen his sons do wondrous things in hockey: captain NHL all-star teams, win Stanley Cups, win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal for Canada.

But in late February, when Staal watched his oldest son, Eric, steamroll younger brother Marc, knocking him out of a game and into uncertainty, that was a first – and not a good one, the father said.

Concussion: the hidden injury. Concussions front and centre as new season begins. Marc was out of the lineup until January 2. He missed 36 games. 

Since that hit, Marc has experienced post-concussion symptoms and seen limited action. While his New York Rangers travelled to Sweden and through Western Canada to open the 2011-12 NHL season, he stayed behind, still bothered by the headaches brought on through exertion.

In Thunder Bay, where parents reside, they've gotten past the angst of seeing one son rattle another in hockey and are hoping for a full recovery.

"Eric really isn't pleased about it," Henry insisted. "He's not happy."

As for Marc, he joked with reporters his dad "probably wasn't as mad about the hit as my mom was."

But a concerned Henry replied: "It wasn't good seeing him hit ... Marc doesn't say a lot, even to us. He never complains much."

"I wouldn't say it has kept me awake at night, but it's tough," Eric Staal said. "If I could take it back I probably wouldn't hit him knowing where we've gone and what has gone on since then. But it was one of those plays, bang-bang, happens so quickly, and I hit him hard."

Still, the familial feelings remain. The DNA is intact.

"I'm certainly feeling better and better," Staal said of his progress since making his long-awaited season debut. "As the year has gone on, I've felt better and better. Playoffs are a lot of fun and I'm having fun with it." 

Sitting out has given the Rangers every opportunity to pursue everything they have as a team. It used to be Dan Girardi and Staal as a shutdown duo. Since ... Ryan McDonagh has stepped in the place, leaving Staal to play with Michael Del Zotto. A top four that has worked -- and has given Staal the opportunity to show off his stuff.

"Marc has always had the offensive ability," said his brother Eric. "Now, he showing it."

"Having watched him in junior there were things there that would suggest that he could play a power play. He may not quarterback it, but he could be a flanker on it or a shooter," Edmonton coach Tom Renney said. "Having said that, I think you've seen his ability to move the puck, hang people on the net, skate it up the ice, join the attack, and lead the attack in some cases. There is obviously a level of comfort there for him with that."

"The coaching staff has never told me not to be aggressive offensively," Staal said. "If I'm not, it's a mindset that I've had to play it safe. I don't want to give anything up defensively, but I know I can do more on the offensive end.

"The more I understand, the more I think I can contribute."

Now, Staal and his teammates will move on to another team they are all too familiar with in the New Jersey Devils. 

"Every win and every round you go, it's that much better," he said. "I think I'd feel the same way if I played the whole season ... It's just a great feeling to keep moving on in the playoffs, and we want to keep it going."

Moving on ... it's just the way thing are for Marc Staal right now.

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