MINUTES AFTERCarolina Hurricanes left wing Cory Stillman scored in overtime on Sunday togive his team a 4-3 win and a three-games-to-two lead over the dogged BuffaloSabres in the Eastern Conference finals, 6'4" Hurricanes center Eric Staalwas addressing reporters in the locker room. At 21 Staal has emerged as a teamleader, the franchise guy around whom Carolina's fortunes will dance for years.Staal had 100 points in the regular season (45 goals, 55 assists), and he'scarried that success through to his first playoffs, leading all postseasonplayers at week's end (seven goals, 13 assists). After watching Staal--who hadthe overtime winner in Game 3 of the opening round against the MontrealCanadiens--lead the Hurricanes past his team in six games, Montreal coach BobGainey said he wished he'd kidnapped Staal before the series.
Buffalo must feel the same way. On Sunday, Staal feathered a cross-ice pass toset up captain Rod Brind'Amour for the game-tying goal, extending Staal'sscoring streak to 15 playoff games, only three shy of Hall of Fame center BryanTrottier's alltime record of 18
Still, one win remained before Carolina could advance to face Edmonton in theStanley Cup finals, and the youthful Staal, cautiously deflecting praise, spokeguardedly--that is, until a reporter asked him who used to win the games heplayed with his three brothers, Marc, Jordan and Jared, on the backyard rink atthe family farm in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Breaking into a boyish grin, Staal for the first time all night looked his age."I don't know what Marc told you," he laughed, "but me and myyoungest brother, Jared, won all the time. Not even close."
Eric is the oldest in the talented Staal clan. Marc, 19, also 6'4", was theNew York Rangers' top draft choice in 2005 (12th overall) and was named the topdefenseman at the world junior championships in January. Six-foot-three Jordan,17, had 68 points in 68 games playing center for the Peterborough Petes and isprojected to be a top five pick in this month's NHL draft. And Jared, 15, whowill play next season for the Sudbury Wolves, is already 6'2" and 170pounds, two inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Eric was at that age.They've drawn comparisons with Alberta's famous Sutter brothers, six of whomplayed in the NHL at the same time.
The Staals grew up playing on the 50-by-100-foot rink their father, Henry,built on his sod farm, complete with boards and lights, to save them fromcouch-potatodom. Henry borrowed a friend's septic-cleaning truck to flood therink with pond water, and from late November until early March the four boyshoned their skills in two-on-two games. Eric says he modeled himself "afterguys like Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk, who played the game with size andspeed and strength."
Chosen second in the 2003 draft by Carolina, Staal added 20 pounds of muscleduring the lockout season while playing for the Lowell Lock Monsters in theAHL, so that now, at 205, with his mobility and octopuslike reach, he's verydifficult to knock off the puck. "This is just a continuation of what hedid in the regular season," says Carolina coach Peter Laviolette. "He'sproving he's a playoff player and one of the best hockey players in theleague."
ERIC THE RED Staal, who has three NHL-caliber brothers, had points in 15 straight playoff games.