SUNRISE — For Florida Panthers fans of a certain age, it had to be strange when former Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal signed with the team as he had some real battles with the likes of Olli Jokinen, Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton back in the day.
Nothing as strange as what some Carolina fans have to be feeling right now.
The former Carolina captain will be back in Raleigh this week trying to get his team to the Stanley Cup Final — only he will not be leading the Hurricanes but battling them.
“This is huge, a great opportunity for us and we’re not satisfied with where we are at,” Staal told FHN on Monday afternoon.
“We feel really good about our game and are confident in our ability but we know this is going to be a huge challenge. They are a great team, they have had a great season thus far. They play a committed game and we feel we do as well. It’s going to be tight, fighting for every inch.”
Staal, 38, spent his first 12 seasons with the Hurricanes and remains the franchise’s post-Hartford leader in games played, goals, assists and points.
Ron Francis remains the combined franchise leader with 1,175 points — 821 of them coming with the Whalers.
Although Staal has been away from the Hurricanes for a while, it is still a place near and dear to his heart.
It is where he got his start, it is where he enjoyed his greatest moment as an NHL player and it is where he helped grow the game into a truly Carolina thing these days.
When he first started in Raleigh, games were sparsely attended but today the Hurricanes play in a madhouse on Edwards Mill Road.
Staal says he is looking forward to returning to Raleigh with the Panthers on Wednesday — but it will not be for a reunion.
“It’s over already,’’ Staal said. “At this point, I am here with all my brothers right here in this room, in this group and we are committed to winning a series and moving on to the next round and a chance for something else.
“I obviously have a lot of respect for them, a lot of friendships over there. But they’re probably saying the same thing: Put it all aside for the time being. I am one of the pieces here in trying to make this team successful. We just want to get the job done.”
Staal won the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 after being the second-overall pick of Carolina in 2003. Florida had the first overall pick in that draft but traded it to Pittsburgh and dropped to third.
The Penguins took goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Carolina jumped at the chance to take Staal. Florida was set on taking Horton, hence the trade with the Penguins.
He stayed there until 2016 when Carolina traded him at the deadline to the Rangers so he could chase the Cup with New York — and younger brother Marc.
Now both are with the Panthers and will be squaring off on the second Staal to wear the ‘C’ in Raleigh as Jordan Staal is the current captain of the Hurricanes.
This will be a reunion — or revenge — series on many fronts as Florida coach Paul Maurice was the last coach of the Whalers and the first coach of the Hurricanes.
He spent parts of 11 seasons with the franchise in two different stints and not only coached current Carolina bench boss Rod Brind’Amour but all of his assistants as well.
Florida also has former Carolina players Eetu Luostarinen and Gus Forsling as well as assistant coach Tuomo Ruutu (2008-14).
“We have a few connections, right? But I am quite removed. It has been a decade for me,” Maurice said Monday afternoon. “Eric has played for a bunch of other teams since then, went to the Finals with Montreal. … There are probably five or six important people in my life who still live there and I will get to see them.
“The thing that always gets me when we go back is the height of the trees (around the arena). They were just planting them when we got there and now you can’t see the building for the trees. That’s what I notice, how much has changed. … But it’s not nearly as nostalgic as you might think. I’m not driving by the old house.”
While Maurice will not be cruising around his old neighborhood when he gets back into town, Staal figures he will check out some former haunts.
While the Panthers plan to have a team dinner upon arrival Wednesday, there will be down time during the series and players will be free to check things out as they are wont to do.
If anyone needs a suggestion on where to go, well, they know exactly who to ask.
“I will probably find a dinner spot for the guys when we are there,” Staal said. “We’ll enjoy our time together as teammates. We’ll find something. There are a lot of great places in Raleigh. I know a few of them. Hopefully it is with the wins in the column.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1)
- When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
- Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM, WPOW 95.6 FM2, WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Series Schedule — Game 1: Thursday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 2:Saturday at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 3: Monday at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 4: Wednesday, May 24 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 5*: Friday, May 26 at Carolina, 8 (TNT); Game 6*: Sunday, May 28 at Florida, 8 (TNT); Game 7*: Tuesday, May 30 at Carolina, 8 (TNT). *If Necessary
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): Florida 3, Carolina 2 (Nov.9); Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.