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Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner celebrates his second goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, March 30, 2011. Carolina won 6-2. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) (Gerry Broome)
Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner celebrates his second goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, March 30, 2011. Carolina won 6-2. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) (Gerry Broome)

Around the rinks Add to ...

Jeff Skinner's 29 goals as an 18-year-old rookie are the second most for a player of his age since the lockout, after the 39 scored by Sidney Crosby in his debut 2005-06 season. Crosby didn't win the Calder Memorial Trophy that year (it went to Alexander Ovechkin) and this year's rookie race is no lock for Skinner either. Not with Logan Couture lighting it up in San Jose, Michael Grabner in Long Island, plus a trio of defencemen (Montreal's P.K. Subban, Anaheim's Cam Fowler, Washington's John Carlson) along with Chicago goalie Corey Crawford all figuring in the conversation. But what sets Skinner's year apart is how consistent it's been. Historically, teenage wunderkinds tend to fade as the season progresses, just because of the toll - physical and mental - an NHL campaign takes. Skinner isn't - and for proof, you just needed to see how he's raised his game against the Montreal Canadiens last Wednesday, a two-goal performance that gave the Hurricanes an early lead and kept them in the playoff race another day.

BETWEEN THE PIPES IN D.C.

Everybody talks about Washington's netminders as a possible playoff Achilles heel, but it isn't the only position where the Capitals are relying on youngsters. With Mike Green still nursing the effects of a concussion, and no immediate return date set, it is John Carlson, 20, and Karl Alzner, 22, who have emerged as the team's shutdown defence pair. Carlson is averaging 22 minutes 32 seconds per night, Alzner 19:46, but those minutes have been ramped up since Green's injury (and Dennis Wideman's recent absence as well). Neither was a mainstay last year, each dividing the year between Hershey in the AHL and the NHL (although Carlson was a fixture in the playoffs, and had a good opening-round series against Montreal). That they could go from bit players to leading lights in under a year is further proof coach Bruce Boudreau doesn't get enough credit for his work behind the Capitals bench.

WHEN LIGHTNING STRIKES

Quirky stat about the Tampa Bay Lightning, the only Eastern Conference playoff team that - going into Thursday's action - has given up more goals (230) than it has scored (228). Tampa will make the playoffs for the first time in four years and look destined to meet the Pittsburgh Penguins, meaning Thursday's date (won 2-1 by Tampa) will represent a playoff preview of sorts. Normally, a Tampa-Pittsburgh series would be clash of the high-end titans, but while the Lightning's dynamic duo of Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos are on pace to play all 82 games, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (41) and Evgeni Malkin (43) will play only half that number. Any temptation to install Pittsburgh as a playoff dark horse will hinge on Crosby's availability, and at this stage, even with him skating, the Penguins are going out of their way to play down any hope he might return this season, no matter how deep they may go in the playoffs.

DULL HAWKS

The Chicago Blackhawks are not sharp right now, and some of it may to do with the absence of Patrick Sharp, their leading goal-scorer, currently out with a left knee injury. Sharp may be able to sneak back in time for the final two games of the Blackhawks regular-season, the usual home-and-home finishing set with the Detroit Red Wings that could ultimately make or break their playoff hopes. Chicago isn't scoring at the moment, having been shut out twice in the past 10. If Chicago does finish eighth, that means a first-round meeting with the Vancouver Canucks, a team it has dispatched two playoffs in a row. Not a great reward for the Canucks' season-long excellence and maybe the only mitigating circumstance is the Blackhawks players who have given Roberto Luongo so much trouble in the past - Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg - are all playing elsewhere.

REAWAKEN THE WINGS

The Red Wings had a wake-up call of sorts in a recent 10-3 shellacking by the St. Louis Blues, but it requires one - and probably two - large asterisks. First, they essentially relied on their one-two minor-league goaltending tandem of Joey MacDonald and Thomas McCollum, neither of whom was sharp, both of whom were pulled. Secondly, they are still forging along without Pavel Datsyuk, the type of no-quit forward with a defensive conscience who might have inspired his teammates. Still, it will serve coach Mike Babcock's purposes quite well: To remind the Red Wings again that mailing it in at home, even against a playoff also-ran such as St. Louis, can result in embarrassingly one-sided defeats. It was the most goals the Wings surrendered in almost two decades (a 10-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the first month of 1993-94). Thankfully for the Red Wings, the regular starter, Jimmy Howard (shoulder), has been cleared to play Saturday against Nashville.

QUOTABLE

"It's always tough after a long injury. You always wish it would be quicker, but you have to take the time." New Jersey Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire expects Zach Parise back in the lineup Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens, after a 64-game absence because of knee surgery. Parise hasn't played since Oct. 30, 2010, against the Los Angeles Kings.

"I'm in one of those good places. Now, the challenge is to keep it." Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, after a 3-0 shutout victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, a win that further advanced his Vézina Trophy candidacy.

BY THE NUMBERS

18

Years between successful penalty shot goals for Teemu Selanne, who got one in his rookie year for the Winnipeg Jets and then didn't get another until he scored in last Monday's 5-4 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

0.7 per cent

Odds of the Calgary Flames qualifying for the playoffs following last Wednesday's 4-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

16

Goals by Ducks defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky, tying a single-season club record previously held by Fredrik Olausson and inserting himself into the wide-open Norris Memorial Trophy race this season, as the leading scorer among NHL rearguards.

 

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