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5:29 PM ET, 6/11/06
What's up with Staal?
Posted by Michael Farber
So three games into the final, the question must be asked: Is Eric Staal's Stanley Cup half full or half empty?
Half full: Staal continues to lead playoff scoring with 21 points, tied with Hurricanes teammate Cory Stillman. Said Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish: "He's played well in this series. A very good transporter of the puck. He's maybe the guy we worry most about carrying the puck through the neutral zone, and we have to do a good job of slowing him down. Otherwise he's a handful for the defense. He can shoot the puck. He's physical. It's quite clear he's the whole package."
Half empty: At the local Mac's Milk stores in Edmonton, his mug is starting to show up on the side of cartons.
The burden is enormous, unfair. He is only one piece of the intriguing Carolina puzzle, one of three premier centermen -- Rod Brind'Amour and Doug Weight being the others -- who should be expected to carry the load. But the precocious Staal set the bar so high, it seems inevitable that at some point that bar would conk him on the noggin.
For almost three series, 21-year-old was the most dangerous forward in the playoffs, cobbling together a remarkable point streak of 15 games, among the longest in history. He set up Brind'Amour with a surgical cross-ice pass in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Buffalo Sabres, a match in which the Hurricanes would rally from a 3-1 deficit. This would turn out to be the final game of the point streak. Staal petered out after that, going pointless in the final two games of the series. While he seemed to hit the wall late against the Sabres, the smart money was the weekend off before the final would revitalize him. But Staal, whose ice time is slipping, has not been any more dominant in the first three games against the Oilers than he was late in the Sabres series. He managed one assist in Game 1, another in Game 2 and a fat goose egg Saturday night when resilient Edmonton scratched its way back into the series, Ryan Smyth scoring the winner when Staal was on the ice. Perhaps the most notable statistic, one most indicative of the drop in the level of his play, is his shots. In the final, Staal's shot total has slipped from four to two to zero. (If the arithmetic progression continues, then we have a scoop.)
"He's a great player who's in a bit of a lull," Stillman said. "We're trying to get him through it. Everybody goes through a frustrating period. Maybe this is his. I wouldn't be surprised if he were the difference maker tomorrow night."
"Sometimes you go through little spells where the puck doesn't go in the net," teammate Matt Cullen said. "He's such a dominant player that any day he could take over a game. We have all the confidence in the world in him. A lot is made out of it because it's the Stanley Cup final, but by no means is he playing bad. We around him have to do a better job of getting him the puck. I don't think [he's hit a wall]. He's 21 and is excited as anyone here. If you hit a wall, it might be in the second or third series possibly. But now, it's like starting over."
The start has been stuttering even though Staal, who had a minus-1 rating through three games, has not had to deal with the top Oilers defensive pair, the towering Chris Pronger and captain Jason Smith -- except on the power play. "You just have to be aware of where he is on the ice," Pronger said. "He likes that off-side, one-timer, that kind of soft area over there."
The operative word might be soft. Staal doesn't play soft but his body is not going to threaten Brind'Amour, the NHL's resident fitness freak. Staal's problem might be nothing more profound -- yet no more solvable in the short term -- than a lack of jump for a player who packs only 210 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. Staal is not, in the lexicon of the sport, "hockey strong," probably playing at 25 pounds less than he will be when he fills out. The September-through-June season is a marathon for anyone, especially a player still growing into his body. Staal now has slogged through the exhibitions, 82 regular-season games, plus another 21 high-intensity playoff matches. His previous high was the 88 AHL regular-season and playoff matches in 2004-05.
"I still feel good out there," said Staal, one of a handful of Hurricane players who did not skate Sunday. "I can't get worried. It's been a great year, and it's not over yet. Obviously when you play over 100 games it's been a long year, but this isn't the time to be thinking about that. I'm not giving myself any excuses."
The slump would be a miserable coda for an otherwise stunning season. Staal, an 11-goal scorer as an NHL rookie, broke through with a 45-goal, 100 point season following the lockout year. He ranked sixth in the NHL in points, eighth in goals. He was included on the Canadian Olympic team taxi squad, confirmation he is in the van of the next generation of stars such as Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
"There was one instance in Buffalo, late in the game, and the play was coming out of the Carolina end," MacTavish recounted. "And he swung behind the net, and [he] got one of those [Mark] Messier-type looks where [he] just demands the puck. 'Give me the puck and I am going to make a difference.' And he had an end-to-end rush that almost tied the game for Carolina. At that point I knew this guy was going to be quite a player."
He still is, but it would be a convenient time for Staal's star to twinkle.
Edmonton Oiler Shawn Horcoff was parked in front of the net Saturday night when he finally caught a lucky break. After being denied twice by Carolina Hurricane goaltender Cam Ward in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, the first-line center tipped the puck with his stick off a Jarsolav Spacek slapshot to end a five-week scoring drought. With the addition of left wing Ryan Smyth's first goal in four games, the top linemates have not only revived their performance but have now put the Oilers back in the Stanley Cup series with a 2-1 win in Game 3. "We put pressure on ourselves to come out tonight and play a good game," Horcoff said. "We weren't looking for help from any other line. We wanted to come out and produce. That's our job."
Three nights ago, after losing the first two games in Raleigh, Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish criticized his most productive pairing (a combined 12 goals, 21 assists) for trying to "do too much" and be "difference makers." After skating around the ice like overexcited puppies in the first two games, MacTavish's top line returned to play more controlled and structured hockey. Horcoff's line delivered four points in Game 3 after combining for one through the first two. Horcoff's goal in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the first period was complimented by Smyth's rebound in the final minutes of the game. Right wing Ales Hemsky assisted on both his teammates' goals at Rexall Place. "Everybody knows the scrutiny the first line is under when you are not winning and to combine that not scoring," MacTavish said. "We were a little tight, and hopefully this win will help us loosen up offensively and we'll be able to capitalize better."
Horcoff and Smyth both struggled earlier when they were matched up against Rod Brind'Amour's line in the first two games. Unable to control that line offensively, MacTavish mulled over having Horcoff's line do battle against Brind'Amour's on a five-on-five for Game 3 and chose Michael Peca's line to take a stab at them.
That turned out to be pretty successful for the Oilers. While Horcoff took the opening faceoff against Brind'Amour, center Peca took the majority against Brind'Amour, who scored in the third period to tie the game. Horcoff, who accused Brind'Amour of cheating at faceoffs earlier during the series, won 11 of 18 faceoffs and the Carolina captain was held to just 10 of 27. "We were able to free [our top line] up a bit so they didn't have to face the Brind'Amour line," Peca said. "It seemed to suit them. They had great chances all throughout the entire game."
Horcoff scored against Carolina's fourth line and Smyth took advantage of Eric Staal's line. Creating chaos in front of the net in typical fashion, Smyth charged towards the net just as Ward swatted the puck away. "He went there and just had the composure in that situation to stand in there," MacTavish said. "A chip-in par. Vintage Ryan Smyth goal. It couldn't have been prettier in our estimation."
The Hurricanes had a different take. In his postgame news conference coach Peter Laviolette suggested the 11-year Oilers' veteran should have been penalized for goaltender interference. A league official said video replay showed Ward knocking the puck out, which bounced off Smyth. "Finally we got some breaks tonight," Smyth said. "Hopefully we can get some confidence and feed off of that."