RALEIGH, N.C. --- Eric Staal is back.
Actually, the Carolina Hurricanes' star never went anywhere, but the level of play that had become his norm took a three-month hiatus to begin this season. But finally, Staal is playing like the All-Star he has been for most of his eight-year NHL career.
That level continued Friday night in the Hurricanes' 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks at the RBC Center. Staal assisted on a goal by Justin Faulk for Carolina's second score of the opening period. And in the last 10 games, Staal has five goals and six assists, clearly his best stretch of hockey this season.
"He's the captain and the leader of our team, so he's been playing great," said second-year star Jeff Skinner. "Even the last couple of months, he wasn't scoring but he was doing the little things right. It's nice to see him get back on track offensively. The whole team has been playing a lot better as of late."
Carolina is 6-1-3 in its last 10 games, with three of the losses coming in overtime. Clearly, the Canes are also playing their best hockey of the season, and it's no coincidence that Staal is finally stuffing the stat sheet.
The center from Thunder Bay, Ontario entered Friday's contest having lit the lamp in three consecutive contests and four of five, totaling five goals.
In Monday's 5-3 win at Montreal, arguably the site of the team's most listless performance of the season back in November, Staal netted two goals and had an assist in probably his best outing of the year. Both goals and the assist came in a three-goal third period, lifting Carolina from a 3-2 deficit entering the period.
He's been on the plus side for five consecutive games. In fact, Staal's plus-8 in the stretch, and for the season is now at Minus-18. He was a minus-24 after a 2-1 home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 10.
Staal's struggles caught the organization by surprise. He's been quite productive dating back to his 45-goal season in 2006 when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. His seasonal goal totals since: 30; 38; 40; 29; and 33. He totaled 473 points in those seasons and was never worse than minus-10 for a campaign.
Perhaps even more impressive are Staal's 19 goals and 43 points in 43 playoff games.
But this season started out terribly. He had just five goals when Muller replaced Paul Maurice on Nov. 28, and while the drought continued Staal scored a goal in only one of Muller's first 13 games as coach the star's mindset began changing.
Muller acknowledged he was a communicator when he got the job, and getting to know Staal and turning him around was a priority. Staal was more active and became more vocal, but the goals still weren't coming.
One here and another there, but nothing Staal-like that Carolina fans had come to expect, until recently.
"You work hard eventually results are going to go in your favor I thought he was working hard for a while,"Muller said. "The results weren't always there to justify his play, but he's been playing two ways with and without the puck, worked hard every day in practice. He's been a quiet leader, but I thought he's really elevated even one more notch since this road trip."
Skinner, 19, who is expected to produce like Staal has, learned watching the Canes' captain handle his struggles.
"Having watched him going through something, but doing the little things right, persevering through it, I think it shows a lot to a young guy like myself and everyone on the team the attitude he came with to work every day," said Skinner, who scored his 16th goal Friday. "And now he's getting rewarded for it."
The Hurricanes are nine points and five teams away from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but they did climb out of the bottom (16th) spot with Friday's victory.
A playoff push is unlikely, but with the team gelling with Muller's system and Staal finally doing what he does best, the final 24 games will carry meaning and intrigue.