CARRYING THE LOAD | Staal scores, Canes win again
OK, it’s not like that. But if it seems the Carolina Hurricanes have been unbeatable since Rod Brind’Amour, their captain and leader, went down with a knee injury a month ago today, it’s because they pretty much have been.
Brind’Amour tore his ACL in the opening moments of that Feb. 14 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a game Carolina won. At the time, the Hurricanes were just starting to show a little life after three somewhat dismal months of hockey. Without Brind’Amour, the expectation was that the Hurricanes would stall.
Instead, they’ve Staaled.
After Rod went down, fellow center Eric Staal definitely rose up. Staal was having a decent enough season at the time, but he’s been en fuego in the last month: six goals and 13 assists in 13 games. It’s not a coincidence that his hot streak has coincided with Carolina’s first five-game winning streak in more than two years, reached with Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Chicago. Along the way, the Hurricanes have won eight of their last nine games, 11 of their last 14, and they’ve earned points in 11 of their last 12 home games (10-1-1).
In the process, with Brind’Amour recovering from surgery and likely lost for the season, they’ve broken open a tight Southeast Division race. Even with the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers winning on Wednesday (all three were idle Thursday), Carolina’s lead in the Southeast remained seven points with just three weeks remaining in the season.
It’s quite an accomplishment. Both Washington and Florida have been playing well of late; factoring out the games the trio has played against each other, the Canes, Caps and Panthers are a combined 18-6-4 in their last 10 games.
Still, only three other teams in the league have done what Carolina has done lately: win as many as eight of their last 10 games. It’s put the team in the driver’s seat in the Southeast, and they most definitely control their own fate. Each of Carolina’s last eight games is against a division opponent (where they’re 15-8-1 for the season) including two games against Washington and Florida. Washington does have a game in hand, but after playing at home tonight and Sunday, they hit the road for six straight, where they’ve played .500 hockey.
Fans who tossed aside their playoff ticket invoices back in early February are trying to remember where they put them.
Credit belongs to the whole team, but Staal is getting, and deserves, most of the credit. After winning the Most Valuable Player award in January’s All-Star game, Staal went on a bit of a skid. He didn’t score a goal or get an assist in the next seven games before getting one of each in the game Brind’Amour was hurt. Before that, Staal was even booed by fans at home games; after seeing his production drop from 100 points (45 goals, 55 assists) in the Stanley Cup-winning season of 2005-06 to 70 points (30g, 40a) last season, it looked like he would be hard-pressed to hit 70 this season.
Thanks to his recent torrid play, which included a three-point (1g, 2a) night at Chicago, he’s at an even 70 points now, on pace to finished well above 80 for the season.
He’s not alone, of course. In Brind’Amour’s absence, others have stepped up their games as well – notably Sergei Samsonov, acquired in early January. After scoring just four points in 23 games with Chicago to start the season, the left winger has 24 points (12g, 12a) in 27 games with Carolina.
Hockey’s the ultimate team game, and with the injury list still long (in addition to Brind’Amour, Justin Williams, Chad LaRose and David Tanabe are gone for the regular season) the team will need to hang tough down the stretch.
But if Staal can keep it up, he can carry the team to the division title almost by himself.