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Hurricanes miss Staal's scoring prowess

| Monday, May 25, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. — Visibly dejected and seemingly less optimistic following Game 3, Hurricanes center Eric Staal found some solace thinking back to Carolina's resiliency.

The Hurricanes have been down and almost out before.

They have bounced back in the past, giving Staal just a glimmer of hope that the 'Canes could get back into this Eastern Conference final, despite trailing the Penguins, 3-0, in the best-of-seven series.

They'll face possible elimination for the fourth time this postseason Tuesday night in Game 4 at RBC Center.

"If I was to pick a team to be in this spot to try and come back, this would be the one," said Staal, the older brother of Penguins' third-line center Jordan Staal. "We've done it all year. We've done it this playoff."

There's one major difference, though, in that team and this team.

That team was highly influenced and often inspired by Staal's stellar play and consistent scoring. This team is struggling because Staal — goalie Cam Ward hasn't held up his end of the deal, either — is struggling.

It's as simple as this: When Staal scores, the Hurricanes are 7-0 in the postseason. When he doesn't, they are 1-9.

Staal hasn't scored a goal in six games, which marks his longest goal-less streak since December. Even more surprising, Staal is a minus-6 through three games this series.

"If I'm scoring goals and helping offensively, there's a better chance we're going to win the game," Staal said before a 6-2 loss in Game 3 Saturday night. "I know that, but I can't change my game. I can't get frustrated. I can't put extra pressure on myself. I have to play my game."

Staal scored nine goals in the first 11 playoff games to help the Hurricanes eliminate the higher-seeded New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, but he has since been shut down. During the current drought, no one has been harder on himself than Staal.

"I'm never going to challenge Eric Staal to the point he challenges himself," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said.

Staal knows the Hurricanes need him to score in order to win games. His teammates know they need him. So does his coach.

"He handles the pressure of being that player for us very, very well, and we think so much of him because he has always elevated his game," Maurice said. "He has always been able to do it as all great players do, so we have confidence in him."

Staal hasn't been able to find his game — the one that pushed the Hurricanes through the first two rounds. If and when he does, it may be too little, too late.

Penguins centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have already taken over the series, while Staal has faded into the background. The Hurricanes' lone offensive star — a 40-goal scorer during the regular season — has been no match for the Penguins' duo, who have combined for eight goals, including six from Malkin this series.

Consequently, the Hurricanes have been no match for the Penguins.

That can change, of course, but Carolina has an arduous and nearly impossible task. Only two teams have come back from a 3-0 deficit.

"Our challenge is that we've got to find a way to beat them once, and then we'll revisit that," Maurice said. "We're not looking at trying to beat Pittsburgh four times in one game."

They are looking for the Eric Staal of old, though.

And they'll likely have to find him to have a chance of getting back into this series.

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