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Reborn Wild forward Staal playing like a Hart Trophy contender

Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal is tied fourth in the NHL with 36 goals this season. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL—Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has watched in amazement as his reborn star forward Eric Staal works his way into the Hart Trophy conversation with seemingly every game he plays.

"Start calling him Midas from now on," Boudreau said. "(Everything he touches) turns to gold. I hope it doesn't end."

After popping in two goals during Tuesday's 6-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, Staal finds himself tied fourth in the NHL with 36 goals this season. He trails only Alex Ovechkin (40) of the Washington Capitals, Patrick Laine (38) of the Winnipeg Jets and Evgeni Malkin (37) of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Asked whether he'll be keeping an eye on the scoring race during the final 15 games of the regular season, the ever-so-humble Staal unsurprisingly downplayed the entire situation.

"Those guys can score a lot and shoot it really well," he said. "I've got a lot of work to do if I want to catch or be around those guys. I'm just going to keep playing. I don't like my chances with those guys shooting, to be completely honest."

Even if he doesn't catch those guys, the 33-year-old Staal definitely deserves consideration for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the NHL's most valuable player. Look what he's done for the Wild.

Staal has lifted Minnesota from out of playoff contention to fourth in the Western Conference points race with his hot streak over the past couple of months. He has 16 goals in 17 games since Feb. 1.

"He's been terrific," teammate Nino Niederreiter said. "He finds a way to get it going every night. He's definitely an elite player, so it's great to have him here."

Need more proof of how dialed in he is? He's not just doing this during games.

"We did some scoring drills at the end of practice and stuff was going in that probably shouldn't go in," Daniel Winnik said. "It's just going great for him. He's played very well for us."

People are finally starting to pay attention. Just two weeks ago, it seemed Boudreau and the Wild were the only people aware of his terrific play.

"You know, last week I wanted national attention, and this week I want everybody to keep quiet," Boudreau said with a laugh. "Just let Eric sneak by and keep doing what he's doing."

There's no sneaking up on anyone anymore.

It's been a while since he has produced such numbers, but he did score 100 points (45 goals, 55 assists) for Carolina during the 2005-06 season, his second year in the league.

But his numbers dipped the past few years and there were those who thought he might be washed up when he signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with Minnesota on July 1, 2016.

"I don't think anybody would've thought he'd have 36 goals at this stage of the game," Boudreau said. "I remember when we signed him we were thinking if he could give us 50 to 60 points we would think it was a great signing. And he's gone well beyond that."

Suddenly the red-hot Staal is also approaching a franchise record that has stood the test of time: Marian Gaborik's 42 goals during the 2007-08 season. Staal needs seven goals in the final 15 games to top that — easily achievable at his current pace.

"Hopefully it continues," Staal said. "We have a lot of hockey left. ... We just want to keep building our game and put ourselves in the best position we can for the playoffs."

With Staal leading the way, the Wild are in good hands on that front.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service