RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) It’s been five months since Eric Staal went this long between goals. If the All-Star center doesn’t start producing soon, he might have to wait that long before his next chance to score.
As Staal goes in this postseason, so go the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ve have won all seven playoff games in which he has scored a goal, and are 1-9 when he doesn’t.
One reason the Hurricanes enter Tuesday night’s Game 4 in danger of being swept out of the Eastern Conference finals by the surging Pittsburgh Penguins is the lack of production from their franchise player.
The Penguins’ young stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have taken over the series, combining for 14 points and eight of their team’s 16 goals. Conversely, Staal has been held to just one assist in the series, and has gone six games without a goal since he had two in Game 4 of the second round against Boston.
The Hurricanes’ top scorer insists his touch will return with time, even if his team is running out of it.
“I’m counted on to score goals and counted on to produce offensively,” Staal said Monday. “I need to be a little bit better in my end of the rink and focus on that first, and everything else kind of takes care of itself. … When those opportunities come, they’re going to fall – I didn’t score 40 goals for no reason. I know what I can do, and that’s continuing to attack the net, and those things are going to happen.”
The drought is his longest since he went seven games without a goal in November and December, a stretch that coincided with the firing of coach Peter Laviolette and the rehiring of Paul Maurice. Staal rebounded from that stretch to score a team-best 40 goals, hitting that mark for the second time in his five-year career, and finished with 75 points, two behind Ray Whitney for the team lead.
But after a quick start to the playoffs when he had 12 points in 11 games, he’s one loss away from the indignity of being eliminated by his baby brother’s team.
“He’s hard on himself – probably too hard on himself sometimes,” Pittsburgh forward Jordan Staal said. “It’s a difficult situation for him. He’s been playing hard. It’s just not going in for him.”
The Penguins’ underrated defense has something to do with that, too. They’ve kept several of Carolina’s top players off the scoresheet during the series, holding Whitney and Erik Cole to two assists apiece.
“Those three guys … they use each other very well,” Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “They don’t rely so much on one-on-one talent, individual skill, as they do on the whole line. We’re just trying to get on them quick, take away their time and space, and get moving into the offensive zone, because that’s where our forwards are able to grind them down and make them play defense.”
Indeed, the Penguins are at their fast-breaking best when they’re flying down the ice, peppering goalie Cam Ward with quick shots and following one goal with another. They’re outshooting Carolina by nearly nine shots per game. Three times in the series the Penguins have scored multiple goals within 90 seconds.
Next up for Pittsburgh: A spot in the record book, one way or another.
No team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers has won the Stanley Cup the year after losing in the finals. The Penguins – beaten by Detroit in six games in last year’s Cup finals – seemingly are racing the Red Wings to become the first team to reach the final round in consecutive years since New Jersey did it in 2000 and ’01. The Detroit Red Wings lead the West finals 3-1 over Chicago.
Before the Penguins can think about a probable matchup against former teammate Marian Hossa – who signed with the Red Wings in the offseason for what he perceived as a better chance to win a title – they must take care of the Hurricanes and avoid becoming the first NHL team since the 1975 Penguins to lose a series after leading 3-0.
“We certainly know the situation we’re in,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “We haven’t won four games. This is a race to four, and we still have more work to do to get there. … I understand they’ve been to the finals last year and didn’t get the result they wanted. No, we’re not there yet. We still have work to do.”
Carolina, meanwhile, hopes it can stage another comeback to prolong a postseason already full of rallies. The Hurricanes scored twice in the final 80 seconds to beat New Jersey in Game 7 of the first round, then delivered a goal in overtime to eliminate the Bruins in another seventh game.
“We’re only done if we think we’re done,” Ward said.