Shortly after the NHL All-Star break, Eric Staal learned how many goals it would take to get his name into the Wild’s record book. By that point, 42 — the franchise mark for goals in a single season — seemed well within reach, a prospect that left the veteran center surprised and delighted.
“Before the season, no, I didn’t think that was a number I could get to,” Staal said with a chuckle. “But when you get that confidence, and you’re feeling good about your game, you can get to those levels. It’s special to have tied it, and pretty cool, but the focus was to help our group get to the playoffs feeling good.”
While he was pursuing that greater ambition, Staal equaled Marian Gaborik’s record by scoring into an empty net Saturday at San Jose. Though the goal count has reset to zero for the NHL playoffs, Staal’s approach won’t change a bit as the Wild enters Wednesday’s Game 1 at Winnipeg.
Staal ended last spring’s brief postseason run in the hospital, where he was taken after a frightening headfirst crash into the boards during a Game 5 loss to St. Louis. He managed only one assist in that abbreviated first-round series despite reviving his career with 28 goals and 37 assists in the regular season. After building on those numbers in his second season with the Wild, Staal is committed to maintaining that production in the playoffs, firepower the Wild will need to keep up with the Jets’ high-scoring offense.
“The end of last season was difficult and disappointing, and a little scary for me personally,” said Staal, who suffered a concussion when he hit the boards. “Now, to get another chance, it’s refreshing. It’s exciting. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
“I’m sure it will be contested and tight, and guys are going to be aware [of him]. But it’s my job to find a way to get to those open areas and find some holes, to create some looks for myself and hopefully cash in. That hasn’t changed over the course of my career, and it’s not going to now.’’
Signed to a three-year, $10.5 million deal as a free agent in 2016, Staal, 33, wanted to prove that last season was no fluke. He led the Wild in goals (42), power-play goals (11), points (76) and multipoint games (17) while converting on 17.4 percent of his shots, best among the Wild’s regulars. He played in all 82 games for the second season in a row and scored 14 more goals despite having a rotating cast of linemates.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau pointed out that Staal improved his consistency, too. Last season, Staal had goal droughts of 12 and 13 games, and one string of 18 games in which he scored only once. His longest streak without a goal this season was six games, and he never went more than three games without a point.
Staal finished the regular season ranked fifth in the NHL in goals and 14th in shooting percentage. His 40th goal also put him in historic company: He joined Gordie Howe as the only NHL players to hit the 40-goal mark at least nine seasons after the previous time they reached it.
“I thought if he duplicated what he did last year, everybody would be really happy,” Boudreau said. “He never had those long slumps at all this year, and he played with everybody on the team.”
In Game 1 at Winnipeg, Staal is likely to center Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter, a trio that has been prolific this season. As part of that fleet group, Staal can make the most of his skating ability — a key to his revitalized scoring touch — and his savvy.
At 6-4 and 209 pounds, Staal has the bulk to get to the net and stand his ground. He can pick apart defenses with his experience, knowledge of the game and vision on the ice, and he has the adaptability to make adjustments if the Wild finds itself stymied. Staal also brings the Wild a calm, stable demeanor and a dash of persistence, two essential qualities in the postseason.
“Any time someone scores 40 goals, it’s quite a feat,’’ Zucker said. “He’s big, he’s smart and he can skate, and if you’ve got speed in this league, you’re going to create some open area. And in the playoffs, he’s kind of done it all.”
That includes winning the Stanley Cup. Staal won it all with Carolina in 2006, after a regular season in which he scored 45 goals — the only year he has tallied a higher total than he did this season.
The superstitious might view that as an omen. But Staal knows from experience that players can’t just expect their regular-season form to carry over. Last season, though he generated some good scoring chances in the Wild’s five-game, first-round series against the Blues, he finished without a goal.
Already, Staal has proved one point he wanted to make this season, demonstrating he could put up even more points than he did in his first year with the Wild. Yet he won’t be satisfied unless he can keep it going in the postseason.
“It’s going to get tighter in the playoffs, and we’ll have to fight for every inch,” he said. “For us as a line, we’ve got to work hard to get to those open areas and find those holes. And when we get those opportunities, we have to make sure we cash in, because they usually don’t come as frequently.
“I wanted to come into this year and prove I’m a player that can contribute offensively. It’s been fun. Now, it’s about building on it, and being even better in the playoffs.”