RALEIGH — Back when the NHL All-Star Game was here, what seems like many moons ago, there was nothing bigger in the world of hockey than Jeff Skinner - here or anywhere else.
All-Star MVP Patrick Sharp, the Chicago Blackhawks forward, summed the weekend up thusly: "Jeff Skinner, I got to meet him. Seems to be a fan favorite here."
As anyone would expect from an 18-year-old, Skinner's frenetic scoring pace slowed a bit during the dog days of the endless NHL season. It's the home stretch now, and with the Carolina Hurricanes' playoff hopes ever so thin, Skinner has picked up his game.
With the Hurricanes' first two goals Wednesday in a 6-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens and an assist on the fourth, Skinner maintained his lead in the rookie scoring race and helped the Hurricanes stay within three points of the seventh and eighth playoff spots with five games to play.
The big game is Sunday, when the Buffalo Sabres come to town for a proverbial four-point game that gives the Hurricanes a much better chance of catching the Sabres than the New York Rangers. With Skinner playing like this, the Hurricanes have a chance.
As for the 18-year-old, who's now one goal shy of 30, he'll just keep living the dream and hoping for the best.
"Looking back at the beginning of the season, I definitely wouldn't have predicted to be here," Skinner said. "I look back and don't predict a lot of things that happened. You just try to roll with it, and hopefully we can keep going."
The All-Star Game fell early in a stretch of 10 points in 22 games for Skinner. That relative drought ended two weeks ago with a two-point night against the New York Islanders, and he has been on a tear since: five goals and three assists in the past six games.
The way he has been scoring lately is no coincidence, linemate Tuomo Ruutu said. The veteran has noticed significant improvements in the rookie's game without the puck - and sure enough, one of Skinner's goals Wednesday arose from good defensive position and the other from a nice defensive play.
"I've noticed, especially lately, he's really strong defensively," Ruutu said. "He's learned a lot. The thing about the goals that he scored last night and tonight, a lot of them are forecheck goals. When he gets the puck in the offensive zone, it's a shorter distance to take it to the net. I think that's been the difference."
Skinner had help on both goals from Ruutu, whose hit on Brent Sopel knocked the puck loose on Skinner's first goal, and whose give-and-go pass set Skinner up for his second after Skinner held in a clearing attempt along the boards.
But it took a deft scoring touch to finish both opportunities, the second in particular - a tricky backhand over Carey Price as he skated past the net - and Skinner has that to spare.
Skinner is on the verge of becoming the 15th player to score 30 goals for the Hurricanes since the team moved to North Carolina in 1997, as well as giving San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture and New York Islanders forward Michael Grabner everything they can handle in the Calder Trophy race.
Skinner is one goal behind Couture and two behind Grabner, but four points clear of everyone.
Wednesday was his first two-goal game since Feb. 8, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Hurricanes. To make the playoffs, they're going to need everything they can get from Skinner and everyone else.