The massive brother-on-brother hit hasn’t been forgotten.
It came Feb. 22, in the second period of a 1-1 game in Carolina. Eric Staal lined up younger sibling Marc near the boards as he looked down for the puck in the Rangers zone. The Canes’ center lowered his shoulder, brought it up and rocked the Rangers’ steady defenseman, who flew backward, hit the ice head-first and was woozy on the bench.
“I thought it was a little dirty,” Rangers forward Ryan Callahan had said afterward. “He (Marc) was tied up by his man and he was vulnerable there. I’m not sure it was a head shot. But I don’t think it was the cleanest hit by any means.”
Yesterday, the Rangers prepared to face the Capitals in Game 1 tonight; Eric’s Hurricanes, who could have eliminated the Rangers with a win in their regular-season finale, were done for the year. Naturally, Marc felt a touch of karmic payback.
“It’s a little better making the playoffs,” Marc said with a grin yesterday. “I texted to ask how he was feeling (Eric was playing with a groin injury), but he’s not a happy man. They had a good run and had it right there, that’s just the way it worked out.”
For Staal, whose iron-man streak ended at 247 games soon after the hit due to a sore left knee, his fourth full season with the Blueshirts has otherwise worked out quite well.
At 24, he was named an alternate captain, was selected for the All-Star team for the first time, scored a career-high four power-play goals and led the Rangers in time on ice per game (25:44). And Staal and Dan Girardi cemented their reputation as one the league’s top shut-down d-pairs.
Superstar Alex Ovechkin, for example, had no goals and just two assists in the past five meetings, although Girardi and Staal each missed one of those games.
“It’s always team defense,” explained Staal. “Backchecks are a huge thing and with that line (Ovechkin-Niklas Backstom-Mike Knuble), we have to be really sharp against them. Danny does a great job, staying close to him (Ovechkin) and limiting his time with the puck.”
Staal has appeared in 17 playoff games, (10 in 2007-08, and 7 in 2008-09) recording two goals and two assists. Even a little experience helps, he believes, although the charged atmosphere is impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t been there. “I don’t think you can prepare anybody with words,” he said. “You have to be on the ice; I think I was more nervous for my first playoff game than I was my first NHL game.”
Now, with an “A” on his sweater, Staal is more confident. “Being in those tight games, Game 7s, things like that…it’s different for everybody, but you know that every shift means so much more.” However, Staal is no rah-rah guy: “You just have to lead by example,” he said.
The biggest thing he’s learned from the playoffs, he said, is poise: “To go out, especially at the start, and play simple and get your feet under you; not worry too much about making mistakes. In a seven-game series, you can’t lose your confidence in the way you play your game. Just knowing that if you haven’t had a good game or a good period, you don’t implode and give up on what got you there.”