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What To Watch For: Pens vs. 'Canes

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (22-17-4) vs. HURRICANES (16-24-7)

WHEN: Jan. 17, 2012 - 7:00 pm  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center

WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The Pens will conclude their season series against Carolina on Tuesday for the fourth and final meeting between the clubs.

Jeff Skinner returned to the lineup Sunday after missing 16 games with a concussion. (Getty Images)
The ‘Canes are coming off back-to-back games this weekend, where they toppled defending champs Boston on Saturday, 4-2, before losing by just one goal to Washington on Sunday (2-1) despite outshooting the Caps 44-24. So far, Carolina is 3-3-1 in the month of January and lots of positives can be taken from their recent play. But although mere points separate the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, the same cannot be said for teams at the bottom. The Hurricanes currently rank 13th with 39 points, 11 points out of the playoff picture – and must start stringing together wins in order to find some much-needed consistency.

The ‘Canes did get a big boost on Sunday when forward Jeff Skinner returned to the lineup after missing the past 16 games with a concussion. It was the first game action for last year’s Calder Trophy winner since December 7.

The 19-year-old had been having an impressive sophomore season before he was sidelined, as his 12 goals and 24 points led the Hurricanes in scoring at the time of his injury. And despite missing more than a month, he is still second in goals and third on the team in points. Head coach Kirk Muller slotted Skinner at center instead of the left wing position where he’d spent most of the season prior to his injury, skating 17:23 minutes while centering Jussi Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

That meant Carolina’s top line of Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu stayed intact. They had a big night three games ago on Jan. 12 vs. Tampa Bay, as Tlusty had two goals and an assist, Ruutu added a goal and an assist and Staal picked up three assists as the ‘Canes beat the Lightning 5-2. Staal picked up an empty-netter on Saturday against the Bruins to extend his point streak to five games (2G-7A), but he and his linemates were held pointless on Sunday in Washington.

With backup Brian Boucher on injured reserve, Cam Ward has been carrying the load – starting 40 of 47 games this season. Justin Peters has gotten two starts since Boucher went down Dec. 6, one of those coming against Pittsburgh on Dec. 27, but 'Canes beat writer Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer tweeted Monday that Muller confirmed that Ward will be in goal against Pens.


I know we highlighted Staal before the two teams’ last meeting on Dec. 27, but he’s deserving of recognition for this game as well, as he’s been a bright spot for this Hurricanes squad. After an uncharacteristically sluggish first half of the season, the ‘Canes captain has bolstered his play starting just before the New Year. Staal has 14 points and 32 shots in his last nine outings (4G-10A), including a five-game point streak that was halted in Carolina’s last game – a 2-1 loss to Washington on Sunday.

No, the Pens cannot rely solely on their top line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal to produce goals. They need to continue receiving contributions from players like Richard Park, Steve Sullivan, and Tyler Kennedy, who all scored in the Pens’ last two games. But with that being said, after a six-game drought Neal has rediscovered the confidence that makes him one of the league’s best finishers. He collected three goals in his last two outings, upping his season total to 24, and should be a handful for the Hurricanes come Tuesday.

The ‘Canes are one of the league’s worst road teams, as they’ve got just five wins and nine total points in their opponent’s arenas. They went more than a month between road victories before they ended that stretch Jan. 12 at Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the Pens are 6-2-1 in their last nine home games against Carolina.

The Hurricanes have scored a power play goal in six of their last nine games and are 8-for-22 (36.4 percent) on man-advantage in that span. Carolina is 4-for-11 (36.4 percent) on the power play in its last four road games.

The disciplined Hurricanes rank third in the NHL in fewest penalty minutes per game (9.5). The Canes have totaled fewer than 10 minutes in penalties 25 times this season.

However, when they do go to the box they’ve been scoring shorthanded, as they rank second in the NHL with six shorthanded goals. The Hurricanes scored seven shorthanded goals in 82 games in 2010-11. Brandon Sutter and Patrick Dwyer are tied for third in the NHL with two shorthanded goals each.

‘Canes defenseman Justin Faulk was selected as one of the 12 NHL rookies who will participate in the 2012 NHL All-Star Weekend in Ottawa, Ontario. Faulk, 19, has totaled three goals and six assists (9 points) in 28 games during his rookie NHL season with the Hurricanes and currently leads all NHL rookie blueliners in ice time per game (22:03). The Minnesota native spent last season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he helped the Bulldogs capture their first NCAA Championship.

Though forward Chad LaRose didn’t play this weekend, Muller said he hopes to get him in the lineup before the All-Star break. The Canes have four games in seven days beginning Tuesday in Pittsburgh, so he could be a go against the Pens.

F Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms (16)
D Simon Despres, Grade 1 MCL (3)
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion (20)
F Jordan Staal, knee (5)

G Brian Boucher, lower body (19)
D Joni Pitkanen, concussion/knee (18)
F Chad LaRose, upper body (4)
D Jaroslav Spacek, upper body (2)

Author: Michelle Crechiolo

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