“We gotta play the biggest game of the year.” —Eric Staal
ST. PAUL, MN – The pressure on the Minnesota Wild’s most dangerous offensive weapon was mounting from around, above and within Staal.
Sure, the rejuvenated Staal had enjoyed a renaissance regular season, pouring in 42 goals for a club not exactly known for its offensive prowess and making a surprise trip to the outskirts of the Hart Trophy debate.
But get this: Over his past 17 playoff games, Staal had scored just one lonely goal — and that was nine years ago. When the playoff-bound New York Rangers rescued Staal from floundering Carolina in the spring of 2016, Staal didn’t so much as register a playoff point. And the big free agent centre was held to one measly assist in Minnesota last April during its swift five-game ouster by the St. Louis Blues. Oh, and the last time Staal suited up for Team Canada, at the 2013 worlds, he went 0 for the tournament. He wasn’t picked for Sochi.
The belaboured point is, it had been a minute since he’d lit the lamp in a meaningful game.
“Thanks for the reminder,” Staal said Sunday, smirking after his most productive playoff effort since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was in theatres.
We wouldn’t blame you if you’d thought Staal’s Triple Gold Club skills got diverted to Duluth for games 1 and 2 in Winnipeg.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau first called out his top line, then juggled it, flipping Nino Niederreiter to Mikko Koivu’s shutdown unit and promoting Mikael Granlund to Staal’s right.
“They have to become more of a factor,” Boudreau said. “Your most offensive line has got to be as good as their best offensive line. There’s room for improvement.”
Staal heard but says the drive was boiling from inside anyway.
“When you’re expected to perform, it should elevate you,” he explains. “I’ve always been that way. I expect a lot of myself coming to the rink every day. It’s disappointing, those first two games. This was a huge game and opportunity for all of us. I wanted to make sure I was engaged and got to the inside, to the net.”
That he did.
Checked to the fringes of the rink and relevancy in Manitoba, Staal parked himself in Connor Hellebuyck’s crease early and often in the Wild’s 6-2 Game 3 rout. He drew a Ben Chiarot cross-checking penalty by getting in the blue paint early; helped set up the Wild’s first goal, a power-play marker by Granlund; then sniped a beauty of his own after patiently waiting for his big winger to deliver a spin-o-rama pass you might as well watch right now:
Kudos to Boudreau.
“It was big. Granny, he’s a playmaker. He can draw people to him and make plays. A lot of skill. You saw him on the pass to me there—not a lot of guys make that play. I was ready but it took longer. That’s the type of stuff he can do. He’s a fun guy to play with, he’s competitive. I thought it was going to be a quick pass, then once he held it, held it, held it, I knew it was coming eventually, and I was ready.”
“You start feeling good about pucks hitting the back of the net. Confidence goes.”
Huge goal, and an emotional celebration from a usually straight-faced guy who’s been there but hasn’t done that in a while.
Winning goalie Devan Dubnyk chuckles when he learns that was Staal’s first postseason goal in nearly a decade.
“I didn’t know that, but what a shot,” Dubnyk says. “That’s a guy who knows how to score goals. Granny makes a great pass to him, and with zero hesitation, [Staal] puts it the size of a puck short-side. That’s a goal-scorer’s goal right there. Hopefully it gets him feeling good. We need him.”
That’s the key. If the Wild have any hope of climbing back into this series, its offence needs to act as deep as the Jets’, and that means Staal & Co. must pile on the momentum.
“It’s good for him, good for our team for him to get on the scoresheet,” Zach Parise said. “For us to get all the lines going, get everyone involved in the offence [is important]. There wasn’t much to feel good about after game 1 and 2. You’re not gripping the stick as tight anymore, and hopefully next game we can get contributions up and down again.”
A measure of frustration has been replaced with a tablespoon of conviction. A springboard. A monkey bucked.
“Our emotional level was high, the building was energetic, we got to the gritty areas and we got the job done,” Staal says. “I wanted to get on the board. I’ve been one of those guys all year for us, and I don’t want that to stop now just because it’s playoffs. Hopefully I can build on that.
“Now, the best part is, you gotta reset, recharge and do the same thing in Game 4.”