Eric Staal's first game against Canes a weird return to the familiar

For Eric Staal, the toughest part of last month's trade has been his three young sons not quite understanding why daddy isn't home.

Luckily, the boys -- ages 6, 4 and 1 -- still have an uncle around who has been able to check in.

"Yeah, Uncle Jordan has swung by a couple of times and made some pancakes for the boys and stuff," Jordan Staal said over the phone Wednesday morning -- no doubt with a smile.

The Staals are about family. It's why Jordan forced the Pittsburgh Penguins' hand in the summer of 2012 to make his way via trade to the Carolina Hurricanes to join big brother Eric. It's also why, when asked to waive his no-move clause by the Hurricanes last month, Eric's top choice was to join brother Marc in New York.

That family bond is hard to break. And while it was difficult on Jordan to see Eric leave the Hurricanes, having his two brothers playing together in New York has made it easier to accept.

"There's no better scenario if it was going to happen," Jordan said. "It's pretty neat watching both those guys playing on the ice together. It's kind of funny, I'm sure Marc watched Eric and I in Carolina over the years and thought the same thing. It's very exciting watching them playing together and playing well."

Eric makes his NHL return to Carolina on Thursday night when the New York Rangers visit. It'll be surreal for everyone involved.

"I think it's going to be a lot of unique, different emotions just because of being there and being there so long playing in that building as the home team and now being on the opposing side," Eric told reporters on a media call Tuesday afternoon. "It's going to be different."

Added Jordan on Wednesday: "I'm sure it'll be weird for him. Even for me going back to Pitt is always a different feeling. For him to have played his whole career here and coming back here, it might be hard and yet exciting at the same time."

A video tribute for Eric is expected from the Hurricanes during a TV timeout in-game. There are a lot of memories in 12 seasons as the face of the franchise.

First, however, there's the matter of getting to the game itself. Eric is sleeping at his house in Raleigh, so the game day drill will be almost identical as when he played there.

Well, almost.

"It'll be a different feeling walking in," Eric said. "I'll be coming from my house. It'll be the same routine as it would be normally going to a home game except I'll be turning left instead of right [once inside the rink]."

Yes, better make sure not to walk into the home dressing room like he did for all those years.

The other question remains whether Jordan and Eric will drive to the rink together?

"I don't know, I haven't talked to him about it yet, but that would be an interesting drive, I'm sure," chuckled Jordan. "It's going to be funny, it's going be weird seeing him in blue and being across from me, especially alongside with Marc. It's going to be an interesting night to be sure."

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. The reason Jordan left Pittsburgh for Carolina was to play many, many years with brother Eric. But as the losing continued in Carolina the past few seasons and the rebuilding of the squad commenced, tough decisions were made. Eric, who will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, was no longer part of the plan for the Hurricanes.

"It's unfortunate, I was hoping things would turn out better, especially over the last three, four years I've been here in Carolina," Jordan said. "We both understand it's a business, and sometimes when things aren't going well, changes are made. It's unfortunate we couldn't get a better result and get into the playoffs. That part is kind of crappy. Right now, my future is these last six games and moving forward with this club. And still trying to be the best player I can be for this team and going from there."

Well that's an interesting question, isn't it, just where Jordan's future lies in all this? He said he loves Raleigh and that his wife and 1-year-old are happy there. He has four more years on his deal at a $6-million cap hit after this season. He's played his best hockey in a Hurricanes uniform this season. The young Hurricanes look close to turning the corner with general manager Ron Francis deftly turning this roster over. There's a lot of promise on this squad and Jordan sees that. But will he be part of it? That's a question for another day.

For now, it's about Thursday night's game, Jordan versus Eric in the faceoff circle perhaps.

"It'll be weird just because I'm used to playing him when he was in a Penguin uniform not in a Hurricane uniform that I was wearing," Eric said. "So that will be different. And just knowing what kind of player he is to play against, he's a tough player to play against."

For Eric, as tough as it was to say goodbye to Carolina, the specter of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, alongside brother Marc no less, has him invigorated.

"It's why you play," Eric said. "It's why I wanted to be in the NHL. You want to be in the playoffs. We're not there yet but we're very close. I think it'll be a whole other ball game once I get out there for the warm-up in Game 1 of a series, I think it'll be a whole set of emotions that, to be quite frank, has been too long since I've got to experience."

Eric got off to a slow start with the Rangers, adjusting to a new team, new system, new teammates. But he has come on of late, including Sunday's two-goal performance versus Pittsburgh.

"He looked like the Eric Staal of old, the one with 100 points," said one NHL hockey executive who watched the game.

The Rangers would settle for half of that on a consistent basis. Eric feels better things are ahead for him.

"I feel good, I think it's been an adjustment, the systems play as far as how I had been playing with the Hurricanes as far as how the Rangers play is different," Eric said. "It took me a little bit to kind of adjust to what guys were doing and what the overall team does on a nightly basis. It takes a little time and probably a little longer as I would have hoped. But every game and every day I'm feeling more comfortable and more confident with the way I can help this team. And I feel I will be able to do that going forward."

Even better, Eric's wife and kids will be joining him in New York as of Friday for the rest of the season.

But first, a big family dinner is on tap Wednesday night chez Jordan Staal. Mom and dad are in town from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Eric and Marc are coming over of course.

"The whole crew is coming over to our house here," Jordan said. "It'll be a good family function. It'll be fun."

And it's Mama Staal cooking, not Jordan, so pancakes aren't on the menu.