VANCOUVER – When he suited up for games on an outdoor rink or battled with mini sticks as a child, center Eric Staal used to pretend the stakes were much higher.
“I think every kid does that when you’re playing,” he said.
But not everyone grows up to actually have those opportunities in the NHL.
Even fewer seem to be able to commemorate them with clutch goals, unforgettable souvenirs that the elite collect while churning out success for their respective teams.
And yet that’s exactly what Staal has done throughout his career, especially during his current stint with the Wild.
“You always want to be in those moments, to put yourself in a position to be able to get that goal,” he said. “I’ve had some big ones over my career, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. But you just want to put yourself in the best position to find that.”
With a team-high 36 goals, Staal is in the running for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and many of those tallies have been critical to the Wild — contributions that only enhance his value as a producer.
Aside from securing three game-winners and four goals that have tied games for the Wild, Staal has had a knack for generating momentum for the team by opening the scoring. He’s done that six times, most recently Tuesday in the 6-2 win over the Hurricanes.
This, however, is nothing new for the 33-year-old.
“Being around Eric since basically he came into the league, obviously he’s a guy his game elevates when the moments are bigger,” said center Matt Cullen, who previously played alongside Staal when their careers overlapped with the Hurricanes. “I think he’s been like that since he started. In 2006, the year that we won [the Stanley Cup] in Carolina, he had so many big goals for us. [He] seems to thrive on those pressure situations.”
Take Staal’s final season in juniors. He scored the overtime winner in Game 3 of the Peterborough Petes’ first-round playoff series against the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League.
“It gives you confidence to be able to do it again,” Staal said. “You have to believe that you’re going to be able to do it and you’re going to be the guy that gets that chance.”
Then there was the overtime clincher he had with the Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs against the Canadiens in 2006 in another memorable Game 3.
“I’ll never forget that one,” Staal said. “Down 2-0 going into Montreal, one of the toughest buildings in the league, going into overtime. It was a power play, but great play by a couple of our guys that got the shot through and I kind of changed the momentum of the series. We took four straight after that win. That’s a moment I’m proud of because it was a big moment for us kind of getting the ball rolling for that playoff run.”
Staal went on to rack up 28 points in 25 games during that Cup pursuit, but he’s also been a champion on the international stage; he’s a member of the exclusive Triple Gold Club for winning a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold (2010) and world championship. The latter came in 2007, with Staal burying an overtime goal in the tournament against the Czech Republic.
“It was special,” he said.
So was the series-winning goal in 2009 against the Devils in Game 7. Staal scored with 31.7 seconds left to push the Hurricanes to the second round.
“We were down by a goal with a minute and a half left thinking the season was going to be over,” he recalled. “Script completely flipped with a win. … I didn’t have a lot of open ice that whole series. Just one of those rushes that happened and was able to put a real good shot where I wanted to put it, and it went in. Pretty special memory for our team. We weren’t heavily favored in any series we went into that year but went all the way to the conference final. That was a fun one.”
Staal hasn’t had much time to flex his playoff scoring touch with the Wild since the team logged just five games last spring before getting eliminated by the Blues in his first season with the organization.
But he could get another crack soon, in part because of the meaningful goals he’s chipped in so far.
And he’s eager to keep delivering.
“I want that opportunity, that moment,” he said. “You want to be up by 4-1 every game, but that’s not always the case. So when you have a chance to get out the next shift and be a difference maker, you should be excited about it.
“That’s what it’s all about. It’s fun.”