Hurricanes’ Jeff Skinner returns to lineup against Capitals

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It’s been a rough season for the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ve gone through a coaching change just like the Washington Capitals but haven’t been able to sniff the playoff picture and are sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Bright spots have been hard to find, especially over the past month with phenom Jeff Skinner out with a concussion.

But Skinner’s back in the Hurricanes‘ lineup Sunday at the Caps after missing 23 games. It’s the first action for the kid known as the Justin Bieber of hockey since Dec. 7.

“Almost sort of like a home opener or a big game,” Skinner said Sunday outside the visiting locker room at Verizon Center. “I think you get maybe too wrapped up in it all and sort of spend too much time early [thinking about it]. Hopefully, I can sort of get those first couple shifts out of the way and get my legs underneath me and take it from there.”

Skinner has been practicing with his Carolina teammates, but this is a different animal.

“It’s going to be a challenge, I think. As many drills as you can, as many drills as you try to sort of emulate game situations in practice, it’s always tough to exactly emulate the exact situations in games,” he admitted. “It’ll take maybe a game or two and after that hopefully I can sort of get back out there and get back to the same way I was before.”

Before, Skinner was the Hurricanes‘ best player. With captain Eric Staal (minus-21 rating) stumbling along during perhaps his worst professional season, Skinner’s contributions were invaluable.

The 19-year-old center had 12 goals and 12 assists in 30 games before getting hurt and is still third on the team in points.

Capitals coach Dale Hunter knows Skinner well from coaching against him in the Ontario Hockey League.

“He’s got a strong stick; he can shoot, he can score,” Hunter said. “He’s hard to defend because he’s really hard on the puck, especially in front of the net. He’s hungry to score.”

Right now, Skinner is just hungry to play.

Talking about his first game back after missing 31 with a concussion earlier this season, Washington forward Jay Beagle relished an elbow to the head because he felt perfectly fine after. Skinner might have the same sort of experience Sunday or soon.

“I think I’m ready to get back out there, and I think that comes with it. I think I’m excited to just get out there and play,” Skinner said. “When that first hit comes and when I go into that first traffic area and pucks are bouncing around — when you see how you react to that, I think that sort of eases the mind mentally as much as it feels good physically.”

Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller — hired the same day as Hunter — was behind the bench only five games with Skinner in the lineup. It’s easing his mind to have him back on the ice.

“He’s creative; he’s fun to watch. We don’t say that we have a lot of natural skilled guys up front, so when you lose a guy like that it hurts power play, five-on-five,” Muller said. “Having him back here will make us obviously a better team. He makes players around him better.”

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