RALEIGH, N.C. --Jeff Skinner is back up to speed for the Hurricanes. For Carolina, those are welcomed words.
Skinner, in his fifth game back after missing 16 with a concussion, scored the first goal of the game on a fine individual effort, paving the way for the Hurricanes' 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets at the RBC Center.
Skinner suffered the concussion after an open-ice hit from Edmonton's Andy Sutton Dec. 7, leaving a major hole in the Hurricanes lineup. After scoring the lone goal in a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Islanders Saturday night, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner seems to be in peak form.
"The first couple games, you're trying to get your timing back," said Skinner, who has 14 goals and 27 points in 35 games. "You try everything you can in practice to (simulate) game situation with little drills that are going to help you. But there's so much chaos, so many variables in the game that you can't take all of them into account in practice."
The first goal of the game was a perfect example. Skinner worked the puck along the wall through the neutral zone before sending a pass to Zac Dalpe on a 2-on-1. The pass hit the skate of defenseman Ron Hainsey and bounced right back to Skinner, who moved the puck swiftly from his backhand to his forehand and to the back of the net at 3:55 of the first period.
"When things aren't going that well, you're complaining that the bounces aren't there," Skinner said. "You can look back on that one and it was a pretty good bounce for us."
So was the second Hurricanes goal, which came six minutes.
Tim Brent lifted a pass from the goal line to the front of the net, only to have Winnipeg goaltender Chris Mason misplay the puck, letting it slip between his legs.
"I was just trying to put it right across the crease to (Chad LaRose) and it ended up hitting his foot and banking in," said Brent, who earned his sixth goal of the season. "I'll take those any day."
Mason earned the start for Winnipeg based on an unusual recent resume. Despite only 14 games played and six games, he had registered wins in all three previous games between the two Southeast Division rivals. Mason settled down to play a solid game, including his best save of the night when he gloved a Skinner shot to the far post.
In the end, it was Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward's strong stretch of recent play that provided the spark in the goaltending duel. After struggling through the first half of the season, Ward has allowed two goals or less in each of the past eight games, a stretch that has rewarded Carolina (18-24-9) with a 4-2-2 mark.
"We've made that committment of being better in our own zone," said Ward, whose record moves to 18-17-8. "We want to make sure we're in each and every game. That's by keeping the game tight and not letting it get wide open."
That's not to say the Hurricanes played a strong game. The Jets (22-21-6) outshot Carolina, 30-16, in a game that was often sloppy at both ends of the ice.
Winnipeg was playing without leading scorer Evander Kane, missing his second game after a concussion, and high-powered defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who has been on the shelf for 14 games with a knee injury. The missing firepower was evident, as the Jets struggled to generate scoring chances through the first half of the game.
But Winnipeg began to catch its stride in the second period. With the Hurricanes holding a 2-0 lead past the midway point in the game, the Jets broke up the shutout bid. A perfect Tobias Enstrom pass to Kyle Wellwood resulted in a redirection past Ward, good for Wellwood's ninth goal of the season. Moments later, Wellwood made a bid to tie the score, but he sent a backhand wide of the net.
"I thought Ward was very aggressive and came out ready to block pucks," said Winnipeg coach Claude Noel. "I thought he made some good saves. He was more fortunate on some, but that's what you get. We did everything but score."
Wellwood had a chance to tie the game on a breakaway with two minutes remaining, but Ward got a piece of his wrist shot.
While the Jets have a date in New York with the Rangers on Tuesday, the Hurricanes are now set for the All-Star break. Saying he is looking forward to a three-day break — his first since taking over as head coach in late November — Muller can relax a bit, knowing that his goaltender has reclaimed his game. Just as importantly, Skinner is showing signs that he is rounding into form as the offensive catalyst of the team.
"I thought tonight was his best game since coming back," said Muller. "He had better legs, he was making better decisions with the puck. He had a strong game, and that's how we need him to play coming down the stretch when we come back."