Much of the focus at this point of the schedule is on the Wild’s pursuit of the playoffs.
But there’s another race worth keeping tabs on in the waning weeks of the season: center Eric Staal’s bid for most goals in the NHL.
After potting two more to help the Wild roll by the Hurricanes 6-2 Tuesday in front of 19,017 at Xcel Energy Center, Staal sits tied for fourth in the league with 36.
Only the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin (40), the Jets’ Patrik Laine (38) and the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin (37) have buried more pucks.
“Those guys can score a lot and shoot it really well,” Staal said. “So I got a lot of work to do if I want to catch or be around those guys. I’m just going to keep playing.”
Since the calendar flipped to February, Staal has scored 16 times in 17 games. His 36 total tallies are his most since he recorded 40 in 2008-09, and 36 is the third most in a single season for a Wild player in team history.
The 33-year-old is on pace for 44, which is only a goal shy of his career high of 45 set in 2005-06 when he was 21. And in 17 of the past 22 games, he’s managed at least a point; his 17 goals and 30 points rank second in the NHL in that span.
Overall, Staal’s also at a point-per-game clip with 67 through 67.
“Hopefully it continues,” Staal said. “We’ve got a lot of hockey still.”
Only 4 minutes, 35 seconds into the first period, Staal converted a wrist shot on the power play before the Wild pulled away in the second amid the fastest four goals in franchise history in just 3:28.
“When we get momentum in our building, we can really roll it over,” Staal said.
Winger Nino Niederreiter kicked off the scoring parade on a deflection 23 seconds into the period for his first goal in 10 games. Exactly two minutes later, winger Zach Parise directed in a slick feed from captain Mikko Koivu on the power play to extend point streaks for Parise and Koivu to five games.
At 3:36, Daniel Winnik, who turned 33 Tuesday, fooled Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward on a shot from the deep slot.
That chased Ward, who had nine saves, from the game.
Just 15 seconds after Winnik’s goal, Staal roofed the puck over replacement Scott Darling.
Goalie Devan Dubnyk posted 29 saves. His shutout bid was erased 9:23 into the third on a tipped puck from winger Phillip Di Giuseppe and center Victor Rask’s one-timer on the power play scooted in with 1:41 to go.
Carolina finished 1-for-3 with the man advantage, and the Wild capitalized on its two looks.
Darling made 16 stops, giving up a sixth Wild goal with 5:14 left in the third on a windup from center Matt Cullen.
But Staal was, once again, the star of the show.
It was his 17th multipoint effort of the season and since he joined the Wild in 2016, he’s amassed 64 goals to rank tied for ninth in the NHL.
And the correlation between his prowess and the team’s success could position Staal in another chase — for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
“I remember when we signed him,” coach Bruce Boudreau said, “when we were talking in the room and thinking if he could give us 50 to 60 points, we would think it was a great signing. And he’s gone well beyond that the first two years.”