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Gameday: Pitkanen Returns as Canes Seek First Divisional Win

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
After getting four players back from injury on Thursday, the Carolina Hurricanes will welcome Joni Pitkanen back to the blue line tonight against the Florida Panthers.

Michael Smith
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Pitkanen, despite having missed the last seven games with a lower-body injury, still leads the team in average ice time per game at 24:30. He will be paired with Jamie McBain tonight.

“His ability to move the puck and his skating. He covers a lot of space out there,” said head coach Kirk Muller when asked what Pitkanen adds to the lineup. “It’s his ability to advance the puck to our forwards, move it out of our end and play well both offensively and defensively.”

Pitkanen, who got some work on the man advantage in the morning skate, could also provide a much-needed boost to the 29th-ranked home power play that is just 2-for-33 (6.1 percent).

“We’ve got to do a better job just getting pucks to the net and getting ugly, getting some tip-ins and rebounds,” Eric Staal said. “When the shot is there, we’ve got to attack.”

On the opposite side of the special teams coin, the penalty kill is red-hot as of late. The Canes have killed off 22 of their last 23 man disadvantages, including all five against Pittsburgh on Thursday. Coming into that game, Pittsburgh was the league’s third-best power play and had tallied a power-play goal in 12 straight games. Overall, the Canes’ kill has gone 30-for-34 (88.2 percent) at home, fourth best in the NHL.

“Johnny (MacLean) has done a good job regrouping them. It’s all about working together. If one guy is not in sync, you really pay the price for it. They’re more aggressive up ice and in our zone,” Muller said. “And third, the biggest, is just pride. Usually the penalty killers take a lot of pride in defending and stopping the power play.”

With the exception of Tuomo Ruutu, who remains out of the lineup long-term, the Canes are now healthy again for the first time in over two weeks. And it couldn’t come at a better time, as the team faces eight divisional games in their next 14 match-ups.

In somewhat of a statistical paradox, the Hurricanes are in first place in the Southeast Divison despite having gone winless in five divisional games this season.

They can quickly reverse that this weekend with a back-to-back, home-and-home set against Florida, and it’s something the team addressed before this morning’s skate.

“That’s got to be better, and it starts with this weekend,” Staal said. “It’s so important to accumulate points in your own division to get ahead of the group.”

“You’d like to sit at the end of the year and say a big reason you’re in the playoffs is that you won the games you were supposed to in your division,” Muller said.

Currently, the Hurricanes sit atop the Southeast at 10-8-1 with 21 points. Winnipeg, winner of five of its last six games, has surged to 10-9-1 (21 points). At 6-9-5 (17 points), Florida is in fourth place in the division.

But Florida has been a pest to Carolina as of late.

“We get caught playing their game instead of ours,” Muller said. “They’ve had our number, and we’ve got to correct it.”

The Canes dropped the season opener in Florida 5-1, and the Panthers posted a 5-1 record against the Hurricanes in the 2011-12 season.

A lot has changed since that first game of the season, though.

“It was the first one of the year, and there were a lot of unknowns. Now, I think we’re more comfortable in the situations and spots Kirk has us in,” Staal said. “I like to think we’re a different team now than we were at the first of the year, and we want to prove that to Florida and come out with a big win tonight.”

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