In one fell swoop, it appears as if the Carolina Hurricanes are healthy once again.
Jeff Skinner, Tim Brent, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain will all return to the lineup tonight when the Canes host the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“You can’t replace veteran guys and their experience,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “It’s going to give us a lift tonight.”
The quartet of those returning combined for 20 man-games lost over the last two weeks. Gleason missed six games with a lower-body injury, Skinner (concussion) and Brent (lower-body) missed five games each and McBain was sidelined for four games with an upper-body concern.
Joni Pitkanen skated with the team this morning and remains day-to-day. Muller said Pitkanen, who has missed six games with a lower-body injury, could be back in the lineup as early as Saturday.
Before exiting the lineup two weeks ago, Skinner was developing chemistry with Jordan Staal on the team’s second line. Skinner, who ranks tied for second on the team in goals (7) and ranks tied for third on the team in points (14) will find himself on Staal’s familiar left wing again tonight.
“Jordan is able to hold the puck and gain space. He’s a big power-forward. When he has the opportunity to draw people into him, Skinner is more of a guy that reacts off of people,” Muller said. “He finds his openings and his time and space from it. Because of that, it’s opened it up for Skinner to do his thing and be more creative.
“Jordan is very excited to have Skinner back tonight. And we are. It makes us a better team with him in the lineup.”
Following in the footsteps of Alexander Semin’s first game against his former team on Tuesday, Staal will face off with the team he spent six seasons with for the first time since the wedding-day trade that saw him head south and sent Brandon Sutter, among other assets, to the Steel City.
Staal registered 248 points (120g, 128a) in 431 games with Pittsburgh, helping the team capture the Stanley Cup in 2009. This season, Staal leads Carolina in assists (11), ranks second in points (15) and ranks second in faceoff win percentage (52.2 percent).
In four seasons with the Hurricanes, Sutter posted 107 points (53g, 54a). This season, he’s recorded eight points (4g, 4a) and a career-best 50.8 percent faceoff win percentage.
“It’s fun. Our staff being ex-players, we’ve all been there so we know what it’s like,” Muller said. “He had a great experience in Pittsburgh as far as winning a championship there. It will be an emotional game for him tonight.”
The Hurricanes, who are looking to capture 17 of a possible 28 points in February, will need a strong first-period effort against a fast-starting Pittsburgh club. The Penguins have scored first in 15 of their 20 games played (11-4-0 record) and have outscored opponents 23-9 in the first frame. The Canes have been outscored 21-7 in the opening 20 minutes, scoring first just four times (3-0-1 record) in their first 18 games.
“We need better starts,” Muller said, matter-of-factly. “You don’t want to be playing catch-up hockey. Teams can play a different style when they have the lead, so we have to come out harder and get results early in the game.”
Over .500 on the road, Carolina is a game below .500 at home at 3-4. Arguably the team's strongest effort at home came Feb. 14 when they suffocated Toronto, beating the Leafs 3-1. The key? Coming off a season-long six-game road trip, the Canes mentally treated it as the last game of the road trip rather than the first game back home.
“We simplify our game [on the road],” Muller said. “We’ve got a young team, and naturally, you come out and want to do well at home. You start being riskier and doing things you’re not supposed to do, and it catches up to you.”
Cam Ward, who said he is celebrating his leap-year birthday today (Bobby Sanguinetti, also a Feb. 29 baby, is doing the same), gets the start in net for Carolina.