Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal didn’t win NHL leadership award, but deserves recognition

If ever there was a player due to score, one whose line had dominated every matchup it had been asked to shoulder without reward, it was Jordan Staal. And when the time came, it wasn’t off a shin pad, either.

Staal’s score-tying goal in Game 5 on Monday set the tone for the Carolina Hurricanes’ four-goal third period, just as their captain had set the overall tone throughout the playoffs — throughout the season — with his honest, grinding, two-way play, and without ever being rewarded, until a moment when the Hurricanes desperately needed someone to break through.

That it happened to be Staal, scoring his long-awaited first goal of the playoffs with a nifty move to beat Igor Shesterkin, undoubtedly contributed to their rally from the brink of elimination to Thursday’s Game 6 at home with a chance to force a potentially historic Game 7.

“An actual pretty goal like that? It was great,” Hurricanes forward Stefan Noesen said. “He’s our leader for a reason. We rely on him so much and in so many different ways. His job isn’t to score goals, it’s to prevent them, right? So any time he adds to that, it’s a huge bonus, a huge benefit that lifts all the boys up.”

Nothing against Rangers captain Jacob Trouba, announced Tuesday as the winner of the NHL’s comical Mark Messier Leadership Award, the sole criteria for which is “a dude Mark Messier digs,” but there’s an ongoing example of leadership on the other side of the ice in this series that should not go unacknowledged.

Already a finalist for the Selke Trophy for the first time in 14 years as the NHL’s best defensive forward — an award with actual standards, voted upon by the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association — Staal has been the engine at the heart of everything the Hurricanes have done, setting an impeccable example with the extraordinary performance of his line alongside Teuvo Teravainen and Seth Jarvis. (And he can’t be blamed for the woes on the power play, either.)

Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal (11) smiles during practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal (11) smiles during practice on Thursday, May 2, 2024 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

If the Hurricanes do manage to pull off a comeback from 3-0 down that’s only happened four times before in NHL history, Staal is already one of the big reasons why, even without his goal, no matter what happens next. He’s a big reason why they even had a chance going into Thursday’s game.

Prior to his goal Monday, it wasn’t even his best game of the playoffs. The standard set is so high — Staal has been on the ice for only one five-on-five goal against in nine postseason games, despite logging the majority of his time against the opposition’s best — that it’s almost impossible to exceed.

His line has seen the most ice time against the Rangers’ top line, the most against the Rangers’ top pairing, and without allowing an even-strength goal. When the Hurricanes talk about being the better team five-on-five, he’s been a big part of it. Maybe the biggest part of it.

“Unreal,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said.

Staal isn’t the all-around player he was in 2009 when he won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, sweeping the Hurricanes along the way. The offensive side of his game isn’t what it used to be, a reality he long ago accepted. Hands age, too. But he’s the indispensable fulcrum of everything the Hurricanes try to do, and when things go bad, he’s often the only player sitting at his locker to face the music afterward, as he was when the Hurricanes fell behind 3-0 after losing Game 3 in overtime.

And then, even at 35, he can still turn back the clock when it really matters, and offer a glimpse of past glory to go with everything else.

“He always tells me he’s got that skill down there somewhere,” Jarvis said. “And that looked like a 2008 Jordan Staal goal. It was beautiful to watch.”

You don’t get a trophy for that, and that may not be enough to catch Messier’s eye. But it’s been enough to get the Hurricanes back in this series.

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