RALEIGH — It was late in the second period last Friday with the Carolina Hurricanes on a power play against the Philadelphia Flyers, when Canes forward Jeff Skinner drifted between the circles, his back to the Flyers' net.
Moments later, Skinner was on his back.
The rookie had felt the brunt of a crosscheck from Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. Skinner, banged from behind, went down hard and needed a few seconds to get up.
"It didn't feel great," Skinner said of the hit, which did not draw a penalty. "I didn't see him back there. Next time I should be ready."
Skinner had skated into what coaches like to call one of the "dirty areas" on the ice - perhaps the dirtiest of the dirty areas. It's an area where no one treads lightly, not late in a season. It's an area where victories often are born, where playoff berths and then playoff games often are decided.
"It's one of those areas on the ice where you have to get a little gritty, where you score goals," Canes center Eric Staal said. "You don't always score pretty ones. You can score a lot of ugly ones just being around the net, whacking away, jamming that puck at the net.
"Guys who are good there play a long time in this league. You've got to pay a price, but it's worth it if you can get one in."
Skinner, the NHL's leading rookie scorer, has been pretty fearless in going to the front of the net. Staal does it. Tuomo Ruutu does it, and Erik Cole and Chad LaRose have taken their licks there.
"That's the price you pay to score goals," said Skinner, who has 22 this season. "There are tough areas on the ice, and I think those are the areas that pay off the most. If you want to win, it's something that has to be done, I think."
Staal said he knows how punishing a Pronger crosscheck can be. He said he took one during the 2006 Stanley Cup finals when Pronger played for the Edmonton Oilers.
"A crosscheck right in the mouth," Staal said.
At 5 feet 10 and 195 pounds, Skinner isn't a big guy. Strong, but not big, not when compared to the 6-6, 220-pound Pronger.
But Ruutu and Staal say they don't expect Skinner to change anything in his game or approach, in his relentlessness to go to the nets.
"He's got heart," Ruutu said. "That's all you need. You don't have to be the biggest guy."
Told of Ruutu's comments, Staal nodded.
"He should know, because he's also one of those who does," Staal said of Ruutu. "He gets right in front of that goalie and takes a lot of abuse.
"It's also a skill. You've got to know where to be and to be able to put yourself in position to make it difficult on the opposing goalie. It takes some skill and obviously a lot of heart and he's one of those guys."
Ruutu is adept at screening goalies. It's also a high-risk zone - in addition to the physical pounding, there are hard shots coming his way, a reason Ruutu began wearing a helmet visor.
"But you can't think about it too much. You just have to go there," Ruutu said.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said that late in the season, the "dirty" scoring area expands.
"At the start of the year, it's just in front of the net," Maurice said. "Now it's everything below the tops of the circles."
Players, he said, must have an awareness of who's there, of when to get in and get out. And, he added, some courage.
"They're letting a lot more go now in what defensemen are able to do in front of the net," he said of the referees. "They're allowing battles to get a little heavier. There's a lot more chaos there."
Skinner, Staal, Ruutu and others will continue to jump into that chaos for the Canes (28-24-9), who face the Pittsburgh Penguins (36-20-6) tonight. There's too much at stake, with the Canes battling for a spot in the playoffs.
It's all new for Skinner, but Staal said he's not worried about him.
"He can take care of himself," Staal said. "You need to be smart on the ice, but he's a competitive kid and he works hard. Sometimes, you can get frustrated taking the extra abuse that not everybody sees, including the referees, but he's got to continue to work through it and keep competing, because that's what makes him good."
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