SUNRISE, FLA. – Wild center Eric Staal was confident in his skills.
But after a lull in 2015-16 in which he split 13 goals among the Hurricanes and Rangers after New York acquired him via trade, the 33-year-old still felt he had to prove himself.
He just had to figure out where to send this message.
And nearing the midway point of Year 2, it looks like Staal made the right call in choosing Minnesota as the backdrop for his resurgence.
“They gave me every opportunity like they said they would,” he said. “I’m trying to do my best to run with it, and I will continue to try to do that.”
After his third three-point showing of the season Tuesday in a 6-4 win over the Senators, Staal led the Wild in points (31), assists (17), shots (105), shorthanded goals (two) and multipoint games (eight), while tying for first in goals (12).
Those contributions have been essential, especially amid injuries to the forward group, but they also underline another critical asset — his consistency, a hallmark of Staal’s career as a five-time 30-goal scorer and Stanley Cup champion that may have dipped two seasons ago but is clearly back in full force.
“You need that affirmation that you’re a good player, and I think he got it here at the beginning of last year,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “And then he ran with who he is, and he’s continuing it.”
On the rise
The best player on the ice during Tuesday’s win in Boudreau’s mind was mentioned just once on the scoresheet — and not for chipping in a goal.
Center Joel Eriksson Ek continues to emerge ever since he rejoined the team after a stint in the minors, playing with the confidence the team hoped a trip to the American Hockey League would ignite.
“I told [General Manager] Chuck [Fletcher] I’ve seen so many players that come in their first year, they put no numbers up but they’ve learned to play the game,” Boudreau said. “They know how to play defensively positionwise, and then the next year they get 10 goals and then by the third year they become really good players. I think Joel’s like this, and hopefully he’s on a little faster track. The last two games I think he’s been as good as we’ve had out there.”
Eriksson Ek registered an assist in the win over the Senators, but that wasn’t the only impact he made. He was physical, a presence on the forecheck and amid four shots on goal, he created chances.
“I’m trying to get him out there as much as I can,” Boudreau said.
The Wild’s delayed trip out of Ottawa to Florida earlier in the week wasn’t the first time Boudreau has experienced a travel hiccup with his team.
During the first round of the playoffs in 2010, the Boudreau-led Capitals were stalled on the tarmac in Montreal after winning Game 4 to go up in the series 3-1. Their plane had engine problems, and there was inclement weather in Montreal and Washington, D.C.
The team ended up flying into Baltimore, and everyone had to take cabs to retrieve their vehicles at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
After arriving home at 7 a.m., Boudreau canceled the practice scheduled for that day.
“I just said, ‘Boys, be at pregame skate the next day,’” Boudreau recalled. “We started out so lethargic that we lost Game 5 and then we lost Game 6 and then we lost Game 7. So I blamed it all on that.”
Like most of the players, Boudreau had a special guest accompany him and the team on the Florida leg of its road trip — his son Andrew, who coaches at a hockey academy in Banff, Alberta.
“I thought it was tremendous because we’ve never been able to do that in other organizations,” Bruce Boudreau said. “Hopefully [Andrew] being in hockey he enjoyed the practice [Thursday], and I’m hoping he’s asking a lot of questions.”