Wild’s Eric Staal finally smiling after ending 9-game scoring drought
ST. PAUL -- Eric Staal had not scored in nine games, and he carried the burden as if it were devouring his soul.
The blank stares, self-flagellation and vows by the 15-year veteran to trust his instincts became almost a nightly post-mortem in front of Staal’s locker as his slump wore him down with every Wild loss.
That all gave way to an ear-to-ear smile Tuesday night, Jan. 15, after Staal scored a pivotal third-period goal in Minnesota’s 3-2 shootout victory over the lowly Los Angeles Kings.
The goal that ended the drought was not a pretty redirect or snipe from the circle, like so many of Staal’s previous snuffed chances. No, it was a random bounce off his shin pad from a Ryan Suter point shot that snuck behind Kings other-worldly netminder Jonathan Quick and gave Minnesota a tenous 2-1 lead.
“Yeah, that’s not the first time that’s happened to me over my career,” said Staal. “A lot of times the game can be fair, and sometimes it’s not. But we’ll take it and hopefully that can kick-start me in the right direction and all of us.”
Staal had a pair of new wingers flanking him in youngsters Jordan Greenway and J.T. Brown. The line was a solid forechecking unit on a night when the Wild pumped 42 shots on goal.
“Right from the beginning of the game, Brownie was skating really well,” Staal said. “Greeny obviously had a lot of looks and created momentum for us.”
The drought was Staal’s longest since Jan. 21-Feb. 16, 2017, his first season in Minnesota. It coincided with some of his worst execution as a reliable points producer. There were sloppy turnovers and quagmire rushes. He opened up about his struggles following last week’s 4-0 loss at Boston.
“It’s frustrating because I’m generating a lot of chances — as much or more as I have in the last few years being here,” he said. “It’s just right now they’re not going in. I have to stick with it and try not to let it creep into other parts of my game because it can be difficult.
“I’m counted on to contribute offensively and be a difference-maker here,” Staal continued. “Right now it’s not going in, but back to work and stick with the compete (level) and it’ll come.”
“That’s how it happens, but if you don’t keep shooting — my dad always used to tell me you get six, seven shots on goal a game, somehow one finds the back of the net,” said coach Bruce Boudreau. “It doesn’t matter how it goes in, but you seem involved when that happens. And when you’re involved, you get opportunities.”
Staal, 34, is in the final year of a three-year contract that pays him at the bargain rate of $3.5 million per season — one of former general manager Chuck Fletcher’s best market steals. He is due to become a free agent and likely will draw interest among playoff contenders as a rental player to acquire before the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Staal might be auditioning for potential suitors or kick-starting another productive streak. Either way, his relief was palpable Tuesday night, when he shared postgame joy instead of opening up a vein.
“I hope so. It has for me in the past, whether it’s an empty-netter or just a bounce like that,” he said. “You feel better about your game. That’s just the reality of it. A lot of times it’s just a mindset of putting yourself in the right position and feeling good about the puck hitting the back of the net. We’ll take those and hopefully a few more in the future.”