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Mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the Carolina Hurricanes are hoping the possible return of Jeff Skinner can help them change that.
The Tampa Bay Lightning may not mind if Skinner sits out one more game.
The reigning Calder Trophy winner may get a chance to continue his success against the Lightning when the Hurricanes visit Tampa on Thursday night.
Carolina (14-23-7) is one point behind the New York Islanders in the East. That's a significant drop from the Hurricanes' performance last season, when they missed out on the final playoff spot by two points.
Not having Skinner for 14 games this season hasn't helped, as Carolina went 5-6-3.
The 19-year-old center is nearing a return from a concussion, and at the time of the injury he was leading the Hurricanes with 12 goals and 12 assists. He's been cleared for contact at practice, but it's still uncertain if he'll play Thursday.
"If he's clear with all his symptoms, then we can make a decision," coach Kirk Muller told the team's official website. "I'd love to see him in (Thursday), but obviously we'll be cautious.
"He opens it up ... he makes other players better. He'd be a welcome addition to help create plays on the power play."
Muller may want Skinner on the ice versus Tampa Bay (17-20-4) since he has six goals and nine points in eight meetings, his highest totals against any opponent.
He had two goals in a 4-2 home victory over the Lightning on Nov. 1.
The Hurricanes didn't fare as well without Skinner on Dec. 31, falling 5-2 in Tampa to begin their current 1-3-1 stretch.
Carolina's struggles continued Tuesday with a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia.
"No one wants to lose around here," Muller said. "No one wants to make it a habit at all. We want to compete and play hard and win hockey games."
Eric Staal thrives in Tampa, scoring 16 goals and amassing 31 points for his highest total at any opposing venue. The Hurricanes captain enters this meeting with three goals and seven assists during a six-game scoring surge. That includes setting up a pair of goals against the Lightning last month.
Tampa Bay hasn't won since that visit from Carolina, losing four in a row to come one shy of its season high set Nov. 28-Dec. 6.
The Lightning fell 5-4 in a shootout to Vancouver on Tuesday, salvaging a point after erasing a two-goal deficit in the third period on Ryan Malone's score with 1:01 left.
Despite another defeat, coach Guy Boucher came away encouraged.
"They're Stanley Cup contenders," Boucher said. "We came back twice from two goals, so that's a character comeback. We could have easily got nothing against a team like that, so that was good."
Steven Stamkos, the NHL leader with 29 goals, has scored nine times in the past seven games, including a hat trick against Carolina on Dec. 31. The star center had just two goals in the previous nine meetings.
It's unclear if Boucher will opt for Dwayne Roloson or Mathieu Garon in net.
Roloson, who led Tampa Bay to the Eastern Conference finals last season, is 0-5-1 with a 4.72 goals-against average in his last nine games. He made 27 saves in a losing effort against Carolina on Nov. 1.
Garon's 24 stops helped beat the Hurricanes last month, but he has a 4.51 GAA in losing his next two starts while getting pulled once.
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