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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Eric Staal Watching Hockey

Can you imagine what must be running through Staal's head today. Game Day. Usual routines are on hold. That special breakfast or lunch that's been working lately is probably not on the menu.

Well, actually, nothing has been working lately.

The Hurricanes are winless in nine games. They have 7 points in the season thus far (tied with Toronto). To put it in early-season perspective, the struggling Wild have 10 points and the hot birds on ice, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have 24 points. Lest one forget, this is essentially the same Hurricanes team that battled the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

What a difference a summer makes.

Including what must be one of the strangest days in Eric Staal's life as of the last few years. Tonight, Staal will watch the game from somewhere other than the bench or on the ice for the first time since 2004. Staal has played every game of his NHL career minus one in his rookie season in 03-04. He is currently third on the all-time 'iron man' list for most consecutive games played at 349. Second is Jay Bouwmeester (CGY) at 354 and the leader is current Coyotes' coach, Dave Tippett with 419 consecutive games.

Obviously, Staal has been the heart and soul of this team. And as his early season struggles continued (3 goals, 2 assists in 13 games), his team followed suit. Doubtless, when Staal returns healthy (and presumably rested), he will have had a chance to shake the cobwebs and perhaps find the back of the net again. He has at times comes out slow to start a season and then later hit his stride before the holidays. And while expected to miss at least three games, the team is going to have to play without their leader for the first time in five years.

Yesterday, the conference standings, updated manually each day in the 'Canes' locker room, has been wiped clean. Tabula Rasa? The Hurricanes sure hope so.

What an odd thing it will be for Staal to not lace 'em up tonight but rather watch the game... From a suite? From the press box? From the locker room, while riding a bike?

The injury is listed as 'upper body' and Staal is considered week to week. So what happens if Carolina wins tonight against Florida? And what happens if they keep on winning until Staal's return? I suspect, upon Staal's return, it will require some serious consideration on lineup changes for the holiday stretch. These early season points are too important to let slip by while a team is trying to 'find itself'. But one opportunity has arisen amongst the soul-searching: line combo experimentation.

No better time to try it out and see what works. It looks like Jussi Jokinen will be elevated to the first line and will have a chance to play with Tuomo Ruutu and Erik Cole. It's a good chance for Jussi to show off his sure hands and the team really needs him to perform. Getting Erik Cole back in the action after missing time with a fractured bone in his leg should help give the team a boost.

But the thing to watch here over the next 3 Staal-less games is experimentation on the line combinations. And if the 'Canes begin winning some games, when Staal is ready to come back, Paul Maurice will need to figure out how to insert the team's top center without interrupting any chemistry that may develop as opposed to going back to how things were.

Because it hasn't been working. And it all depends on how the team responds to the adversity. This 'iron man streak destruction' may be just the break the Hurricanes need to gather strength and find the way to win as a team. The players have nothing to lean on now - other than their own sticks.

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