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So this is what it's like when a player becomes a leader

ATLANTA -- So this is what it looks like when the nightmare turns to a dream.

This is what it looks like when the slippery slope turns into a well-lit path.

This is what it looks like when a leader is revealed.

Six weeks ago, you wouldn't have given a sponge puck for the Carolina Hurricanes' playoff chances.

Plagued by inconsistent efforts up and down the lineup and dragged down by injury, the Carolina Hurricanes had seen an enormous lead atop the Southeast Division dwindle to a few points.

GM Jim Rutherford dealt Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore, two crucial elements to the team's 2006 Stanley Cup run, to Ottawa for defenseman Joe Corvo and forward Patrick Eaves, who was injured at the time. It was a move that pointed as much to the future as to the here and now.

Then, as if the hockey gods were still exacting a toll for the glorious run of two seasons ago, the Hurricanes' captain and the big straw in their drink, Rod Brind'Amour, went down for the season with a knee injury.

Say good night, Irene.

And yet, since that time, the Hurricanes have found a way to not just stay afloat but also surge ahead, to lay claim to a division title and give pause to the many who believe drawing Carolina in the first round is a cakewalk.

There are many reasons for the renaissance.

Rutherford's shrewd pickup of Sergei Samsonov off waivers from Chicago has yielded unexpected dividends as the diminutive Russian has 29 points in 30 games for Carolina, resurrecting a career in tatters. Goalie Cam Ward has put behind him a season and a half of inconsistency to deliver playoff-caliber performances. Corvo has looked like Paul Coffey, delivering crucial power-play minutes and chipping in 10 points in his last eight games before Thursday's tilt with Florida. Role players Ryan Bayda, Tim Conboy and Keith Aucoin all have filled roles.

But hockey teams are surprisingly consistent in what nourishes them, what pushes them forward. Yes, good coaching, a sense of direction from management and good luck are all important. But all good teams need someone to lead them, to show them that adversity isn't a wall, but a challenge.

In the Carolina Hurricanes' dressing room Eric Staal has become that man.

"It's unfair to say he's the reason why we're where we are," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette told ESPN.com this week. "But if you have a hard-working team, there has to be somebody that you look to. This has been a chance to look into Eric Staal and see what he's all about. I think everybody likes what they've seen."

There are, of course, the points. Staal has piled up 27 points in 16 games since Brind'Amour went down Feb. 14, more than any other player in the NHL over that period. The team is an incredible 12-3-1 over that span, a record that includes games without other leaders like Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen. In fact, 12 Canes have missed action during this stretch, accounting for 106 man games lost.

Some of that production is the result of Staal's ascension to the No. 1 center role. He is on the ice more, killing penalties, taking important faceoffs. Always a strong power-play participant, Staal's role has increased on the man advantage given the team's injuries.

But there's more. The 6-foot-4 Staal is playing with more snarl -- pushing back, jumping into scrums after the whistle. He has become tougher to knock off the puck, especially down low, and is more diligent about recovering lost pucks.

After seeing his point production drop by 30 points from 2005-06 to 2006-07 (from 100 to 70), Staal endured a lean patch earlier this season when he had just six points in 16 games from mid-November to mid-December. Yet, the big center from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has put those growing pains behind him at a time when the Hurricanes need him most.

"Just seeing this kid grow up, and grow up not only being a player, but as a man," Veteran defenseman Bret Hedican said, shaking his head.

Hedican said he's seen a recognition on Staal's part that the team needs him in a different way than when he first arrived during the 2005-06 season.

"He's getting it," Hedican said. "He's really led the way."

You never know how these things are going to turn out.

Did anyone expect Evgeni Malkin to challenge for the NHL's scoring title and, ergo, NHL MVP when Sidney Crosby went down with injury?

As a GM or coach, you can only hope.

A long time ago, Rutherford acquired Gary Roberts to come into Carolina to try to show a team that knew nothing about winning what it took to get there. Ron Francis came to Carolina, too, and helped guide the team to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002.

Brind'Amour stepped seamlessly into that go-to guy role when Francis retired. Brind'Amour was a dramatically different person and player than Francis, and the fiery veteran, the defending Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the game's best two-way forward, willed Carolina to a championship in 2006.

It's almost like there's a protocol, a certain dressing-room decorum that has to be followed in matters of leadership, Rutherford told ESPN.com this week. Lines can't be crossed too soon, the process can't be rushed.

Clearly, Staal has made that quantum leap from guy in the room to "the guy" in the room. The 2003 second overall pick always has been a great talent, Rutherford said. "Now he's matured beyond that to being one of the top players in the league. He has the perfect demeanor to be not only a great player, but a great leader."

For Staal, the process has been a simple one.

"Everybody needed to step up. Everybody needed to bring just a little bit extra," he told ESPN.com this week.

He understands he has to step up a little more, though, given his skill set.

Did Staal ever wonder, though, whether he could be this kind of player, the kind of player his teammates looked to when times got tough?

"I don't think I ever wondered really if I could ever become that kind of person," he said. "I've been that on other teams. You want that as a player, to be counted on, to be looked up to."

So, this is what it's like when a player becomes a leader.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.