BOSTON — The schedule-maker did Jordan Staal no favours.
By building an extra off-day into the Eastern Conference Final, he gave the Carolina Hurricanes centre more time to think. About the Game 1 loss to the Boston Bruins. And about the role he played in Boston’s comeback after taking a boarding penalty in the opening minute of the third period.
"I’m having a tough time putting it behind me," said Staal. "If we kill it off and go on to win the game, it is what it is, but they get a big goal out of it and get the momentum and obviously take over the game, win the game.
"I’ve been trying to let it go."
This is the yin and yang of being a trusted, detail-oriented, 200-foot player. You don’t carve out a career like the one Staal’s had or enjoy a spring like the one he’s putting together for Carolina without sweating the small stuff.
And, in hockey, it’s all small stuff.
But you also can’t expect to have any success while playing with a clouded mind or any hint of indecision, which is why Staal tried to use his return to the TD Garden ice for Saturday’s practice as a chance to work towards a stronger Game 2 here on Sunday afternoon.
"I know I’ve got to stick with my game and playing physical," he said.
At six-foot-four and 220 pounds, Staal is built for the grind of the playoffs. Where he erred in Thursday’s series opener was seeing red after taking a hit from Connor Clifton in the neutral zone and responding by driving Chris Wagner into the end boards despite his No. 14 Bruins sweater facing out.
It was an easy penalty call — one of the few from Game 1 beyond debate — and Marcus Johansson tied the score while he was in the box, triggering Boston’s march towards a 5-2 victory.
"It wasn’t my greatest play in these playoffs," said Staal. "I didn’t let up as much as I could. I ran in to him and he was in an awkward spot."
There may be no more important player for Carolina in this series than the 30-year-old centre, who is deployed in all situations and always tasked with neutralizing an opponent’s hydrogen bombs.
He tilted the ice in heavy minutes against Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin during the Washington series, and didn’t allow the Islanders’ top line of Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle to score against him at even strength in Round 2.
It was no coincidence that Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour sent him out for the start of the third period in Game 1 against Boston — not with Carolina leading 2-1 and trying to keep the Bruins at bay. His lingering regret over the penalty that occurred 49 seconds later can be traced to the pride he takes in his trusted role on the team.
"That’s what makes him such a special player and what hurts him, it’s actually that he cares too much," said Brind’Amour. "You really can’t care too much, but he does. Like he’ll take a shift that everyone else won’t even think about, that looks normal, that he thinks was bad and it eats him up.
"That’s not good, right? You don’t want to be focusing on bad stuff, but he just cares so much that I totally know that that [penalty] was eating him up."
When Staal is on the ice, everything gets better for Carolina.
They’ve enjoyed healthy returns on his even-strength playoff minutes in shot attempts (60.4 per cent), scoring chances (56.8 per cent), high-danger chances (61.4 per cent) and goals (11-3).
He’s also produced solid offensive numbers this spring — with four goals and 10 points in 12 games — although his greatest value can be found in the details that tend to make up the small margin between winning and losing in tight games.
Faceoffs. Puck battles. Defensive awareness and positioning.
"Just getting in and being a part of that [playoff] atmosphere, that emotional play, is what I love," said Staal. "Going at it every game against the same team and really just grinding guys out is just what I love to do."
There’s a reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins handed Staal a NHL job a few days after his 18th birthday and won a Stanley Cup with him as a key contributor at age 20. He’s endured a long wait to get back into the playoff environment since a 2012 trade to Carolina, but is even more determined to make good on this chance as a result.
With 65 hours between games to start this series, Brind’Amour had more time than usual to meet with players. He had a chat with Dougie Hamilton, who took two debatable penalties of his own in Game 1, and others with Jordan Martinook and Michael Ferland.
As for Staal? Not a word.
"We don’t talk about it," said Brind’Amour. "Like we don’t even mention [his penalty] because it was not that big of deal. That’s the kind of person he is. He wants us to win so bad that he cares about [everything].
"You can’t have enough people like that around."