Like so much of that agonizing playoff series against St. Louis, it was an exciting scoring chance for the Wild gone wrong. Only this one went terribly wrong. Afterward, Eric Staal lay on the ice, clutching his helmet, concussed, in significant pain.
After crashing headfirst into the boards, Staal was in the hospital when he learned St. Louis had eliminated the Wild, finishing off a 4-3 victory in Game 5.
“That,” Staal said, “was difficult to swallow.”
It took Staal about two weeks to recover from the concussion and even longer to get over the way the Wild’s season ended, the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed going out in the first round. Staal led the team with 28 regular-season goals yet managed just one point (an assist) in that five-game series against St. Louis.
Now Staal, 32, is fully healthy again, using last year’s playoff struggle as fuel for a new season that opens Thursday at Detroit.
“Once I recovered and came around healthwise, your best bet is to try to learn from it,” Staal said. “Everybody’s pumped to get it going again.”
During the regular season, Staal gave the Wild everything it could have wanted when it signed him to a three-year, $10.5 million free-agent contract in July 2016.
The former Carolina Hurricanes captain set career highs in plus/minus ratio (plus-17) and blocked shots (39). His 65 points were his most in five seasons.
“In the [locker] room, he was fabulous,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I never realized how good of a person he was, and you could tell he was a captain for 10 years.”
Staal often centered Nino Niederreiter and either Zach Parise or Charlie Coyle. This helped allow Boudreau to entrench Mikko Koivu with Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker.
“It definitely took some weight off Mikko’s shoulders,” Niederreiter said. “Down the middle, it was always, ‘Who’s going to help Mikko being the first or second center?’ When Staalsie came, I could tell Mikko was a little relieved.”
Koivu also finished with career highs as a plus-27 with 65 blocked shots.
Meanwhile, Niederreiter thrived on Staal’s wing, posting career highs in goals (25), assists (32), points (57) and many other categories.
“[Staal’s] such a smart player,” Niederreiter said. “He plays very simple, and his mentality is go to the net and shoot as many pucks as possible. I think that kind of fits my game, fits [Charlie Coyle’s] game, or Zach [Parise’s] game, whoever is going to be on that line.”
Niederreiter admitted the team was shook when Staal crashed in Game 5.
The 6-4, 209-pound Staal had rushed the ice, beaten a defenseman and shot low, creating a golden rebound opportunity against Jake Allen. But Staal lost his footing and crashed, while Coyle fanned on the rebound.
Once the whistle blew, a hush came over the Xcel Energy Center crowd.
“At that point, you don’t think about the game any more,” Niederreiter said. “You just want to make sure he’s healthy and he recovers well. Now, he’s healthy and he feels good, and I think that’s the most important thing at that moment.”
Staal said he had experienced one or two previous concussions.
This one “took a lot of rest, a lot of sleep, a lot of just darkness for a couple of days,” he said. “And then I came around pretty quickly within a week or two and started to feel a little bit more like myself.
“I was smart with that. I wanted to make sure I was totally recovered before I started back up in the gym and training again because I’ve seen other guys that have pushed themselves early, and that can come back and bite them.”
Staal still had time to do his usual offseason training regimen and came to camp at full speed. On Saturday, in the Wild’s final preseason game, the line of Staal, Niederreiter and Coyle combined for eight points in a 5-2 win over Dallas. Staal set up Coyle’s goal with a beautiful cross-ice pass and scored two himself.
“[Staal] looks great, he feels good, and it’s been fun being around him,” Niederreiter said. “And obviously, he’s a great help for our team.”