In his career, which had stretched from the Peterborough Petes to the Lowell Lock Monsters to the Carolina Hurricanes, finding the net was never a problem for Eric Staal: 81 goals in three Ontario League seasons, 26 in his only year in the AHL, and 319 in 13 NHL campaigns, with between 30 and 45 in five of them.
“I’ve scored a lot of goals in my time,” the low-key Ranger said without a trace of braggadocio. “This year, for some reason, it hasn’t been hitting the back of the net. You want to see it [go in] every time you shoot.”
On Sunday, the 31-year-old center — who was shifted to left wing in an effort to break a slump in which he had scored only once in 13 games since being obtained from the Hurricanes on Feb. 28 — saw the puck hit the twine twice. The goals returned him to a semblance of normalcy after a frustrating transition to a new team.
“Once you see one, you get two,” Staal said. “I should have had a couple after that. The chances start to come and you start to feel more confident, and confidence is huge, and hopefully this gets the ball rolling forward for me and that helps this group as far as balance and attack as we move to the playoffs.”
The timing couldn’t be better to lift the burden off his shoulders: The Hurricanes are planning a tribute to their former captain when the Rangers visit on Thursday.
Alain Vigneault, who has tried different wingers with the 6-5 center, said that despite his struggles, “he’s been real positive and real upbeat on the bench; I like what he’s bringing to our team.”
On Sunday, in the second game for the latest trio, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast assisted on each of the goals. “They generated most of our opportunities and scoring chances,” Vigneault said.
Staal liked the feel of the threesome, saying that Hayes was a little more comfortable at center than wing and describing Fast as “one of those honest players that works hard and competes, and we were on the puck a lot . . . Obviously, we’re looking for a checkmark [in the standings to indicate clinching a playoff berth], but at the end of the day, we’re looking for flow and balance and comfort and giving ourselves the best chance to win every night.”
Like goals this season, the playoffs have been a long time coming for Staal; his last appearance was in the 2008-09 season, two years after the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Staal compiled 43 points in his 43 postseason games, and the Blueshirts would love to have a similar contribution this spring.
Mats Zuccarello is the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, courtesy of a vote by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association . . . Cristoval “Boo’’ Nieves, a second-round draft pick in 2012 who completed his senior year at the University of Michigan with 10 goals and 31 points, agreed to a two-year entry-level deal averaging $755,000 with the Rangers.