Young Staal shows he's not wilting in Cup finals

Updated: June 13, 2006, 5:25 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

EDMONTON, Alberta -- On Sunday, Hurricanes center Eric Staal impressed veteran teammate Mark Recchi with the way he handled himself under intense media scrutiny about his recent mini-slump.

In an easy manner, the 21-year-old lanky blond with the scruffy playoff beard handled one question after another as if he were shooting pucks into an open net.

A day later, Staal impressed Recchi in a more tangible way. He set him up for the game-winning goal in the Hurricanes' 2-1 Game 4 victory over the Oilers at Rexall Place. Now, Staal, Recchi and the rest of the Canes find themselves one win away from winning the Stanley Cup.

"[Staal] wants to be the go-to guy on this team," Recchi said. "You could see by the way he handled himself on Sunday that he doesn't mind the pressure. This kid brings a lot of things to the table for us."

On the game winner, 6-foot-4 Staal showed his athletic nature. Spotting a puck that had been deflected into the air above the slot, Staal jumped up to grab it. Calmly, he corralled the puck, put it down, made a quick move around Oilers defender Jason Smith and dished the puck to Recchi, who was alone at the left-wing side of the cage. Recchi made no mistake, wristing the puck past sprawling Oilers goalie Jussi Markkanen.

In the third period, Carolina goalie Cam Ward, another pretty calm youngster, made five stops to preserve the win.

Just hours earlier, though, after a tough Game 3 Canes loss, the media were shining a spotlight on Staal, who'd contributed just two assists in his past five games. Many wondered whether he had run out of gas in his first Cup playoff run. After all, he seemed unstoppable in compiling a franchise-record 15-game points streak earlier in the postseason.

Now, in the finals, we had to ask: Where was Staal?

Carolina coach Peter Laviolette grew so concerned about the increased negative chatter in the media about Staal that he went to talk to his young star.

"I just wanted to remind him of how much confidence I had in him," Laviolette said. "I told him I thought he was a great player with so much God-given talent. And I told him I just wanted him to go out there and have fun."

Staal appreciated the vote of confidence.

"It's always nice when your coach feels that way," he said. "It makes you feel good."

A quiet guy, Staal has been pretty unflappable throughout his breakout season. He scored 45 goals and 100 points in the 82-game schedule. In these playoffs, he's tied with teammate Cory Stillman for the league lead with 24 points in 22 games.

"He's been doing it for us all season," Laviolette said. "I don't like to single out guys, but he's one of the biggest reasons we had the success we've had this year."

Aside from the pregame chat, Laviolette made another little move to boost Staal. The coach shuffled his lines throughout the game, giving Staal a little more time with veteran left winger Stillman. The two had skated together often during the season. The kid and the vet were involved in both scoring plays in critical Game 4.

"Cory is the type of player that you want to play with," Staal said. "He moves the puck very well. He finds you in areas where you are going to make plays. It was good to get a chance to play with him again."

Likewise, Stillman enjoyed the chance to skate with Staal, and he believed his teammate had a little more jump Monday.

"He came out skating," Stillman said. "When he can do that, he opens things up and he's going to make plays."

Staal also thought he had better skating legs for Game 4.

"I don't know why, but I just felt really good," he said. "I had a really good warm-up. I got a good sweat, and I really believed I was going to have a good game."

Team captain Rod Brind'Amour predicted as much Sunday when he said you can't keep a good player down for too long. After Monday's win, he reiterated his feelings about Staal.

"He's one of the best young players in the league for a reason," Brind'Amour said. "It's not just because he has talents; it's because he's consistent night in, night out. I thought he's been playing great hockey, he just hasn't been scoring lately. Tonight, he made two great plays and that's the difference in the hockey game."

If there were any questions left about Staal, he answered them Monday night in Edmonton. On the game's biggest stage, he answered the critics with his performance. That's what great players do. At this point, the only real question left is: How good will this guy be in the future? After all, he's only 21.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.