PITTSBURGH – When Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes proudly took the Stanley Cup back home to Ontario on a sunny summer’s day in 2006, little brother Jordan Staal probably was the only person in their hometown of Thunder Bay who didn’t lift it.
Oh, he was eager to revel in his brother’s accomplishment and proudly posed with it. As the Pittsburgh Penguins’ newly minted first-round draft pick, though, Jordan Staal knew he shouldn’t handle it.
It’s an NHL players’ superstition to not lift the Stanley Cup until he has won it and Jordan, while only 17 at the time, wasn’t about to break with tradition.
“I kind of kept my distance,” he said.
There will be no such separation between the Staal brothers when the Hurricanes and Penguins play in the first NHL conference final to match brothers in 35 years, or since Phil and Tony Esposito went at each other in 1974.
Eric Staal is one of the NHL’s best power forwards, Jordan Staal is a top two-way centre, and they will go at each other shift after challenging shift, night after strenuous night.
Back in Thunder Bay, nervous parents Henry and Linda Staal will agonize over every hit, uncertain who to root for, understanding that one brother will play for the Stanley Cup again – each has done so since 2006 – but the other’s season must end.
“For myself and for Jordan, after the games, to talk to them, it’s a grind,” Eric Staal said. “You know it’s tough.”
So tough that two brothers who regularly text each other and talk during the season probably will silence communication for the next two weeks.
Jordan Staal jumped off his couch to celebrate when the Hurricanes ousted top-seeded Boston on Thursday night, but now his Penguins’ success may be determined by how well he can control his big brother.
“I’ve been playing against the top lines the last two series, so I’m sure Eric is right up there, so I might be matched against him,” Jordan Staal said. “It’s just another big challenge.”
From going against Alex Ovechkin to going against his own brother. How much tougher does it get than that?
“When you have two Staals, one is moving on to the Stanley Cup final, so that’s always a good thing,” Jordan Staal said of the fifth brother vs. brother matchup in NHL playoff history.
Two Staals, two styles. Eric, 24, and Jordan, 20, are strong, physical players – a testament to their years of work on the family’s 500-acre Sunshine Sod Farm – but they’re not the same type player.
Eric Staal is more of a pure goal scorer, with 40 this season and at least 30 each of the previous three seasons. His 28 points led Carolina during its Stanley Cup playoff run in 2006. Jordan Staal can score, as he proved by getting 29 goals as a rookie, but he is prone to slumps and didn’t score in his first 10 playoff games this spring.
Even when he doesn’t score, Jordan Staal is an excellent penalty killer and defender. Last season, he helped the Penguins eliminate another of the four hockey-playing Staal brothers, defenceman Marc Staal of the Rangers, during the conference semifinals. The other brother, Jared, is a Phoenix prospect.
Eric Staal, of course, doesn’t want to be the next forward to be shut down by Jordan. Or the next brother to be sent home by him.
“Hopefully, (there’s) some big games on my side so it’s a story about the big brother, not the younger brother,” said Eric Staal, who leads Carolina with nine goals and 13 points in the playoffs.
While Staal vs. Staal adds a personal element to the finals, Hurricanes forward Scott Walker is dealing with a far more serious family matter as his team awaits Game 1 in Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Walker learned during the Boston series that his wife, Julie, has cervical cancer, which doctors believe is treatable. Despite those pressures, Walker scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 7.
“My wife is an amazing person and we are looking forward to a positive outcome from this challenge,” Walker said Saturday.
Walker’s adversity serves as a reminder that while both teams are only a round away from playing for a championship, they’re only playing a game. The Staals will go back to being brothers when this series is over, no matter who wins, and the Stanley Cup can’t separate them.
“You obviously want to do well, you want your team to do well, but at the same time you want your family to do well,” Jordan Staal said.