RALEIGH — For Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, tonight's game against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center offers a convenient measuring stick.
It was on Jan. 15 that Skinner returned from a concussion to face the Caps in Washington after being sidelined for 16 games. Since that last visit to the Verizon Center, last year's Calder Trophy winner has had some ups and downs, some good moments and not-so-good moments for the Canes (24-27-14).
"You come back and you're anxious. You're excited to be back and want to get back to where you left off," Skinner, 19, said Monday. "Sometimes you end up forcing it. That can only hurt you.
"But sometimes it's tough to kind of rein it back in and regroup and take it one step at a time and not rush things."
Before the concussion, caused by an open-ice hit by Edmonton's Andy Sutton on Dec. 7, Skinner had scored 12 goals and notched 12 assists in 30 games, exceeding the pace that made him the NHL rookie of the year last season. In the 19 games since his return, he has five goals and six assists.
The concussion was Skinner's first. While he hoped he would quickly regain the form he had before the injury, that he would again wade into the high-traffic areas around the net to score goals and wouldn't back away from any hits, there was no way of knowing until he was back on the ice.
"I didn't really know what to expect, having never been through it," Skinner said. "In this stretch, I probably haven't being playing my best hockey. I don't think there's any excuses for it. I think you just have to sort of dig deep and find ways to contribute and help the team win.
"Coming back, especially at midseason when games are starting to ramp up, to take that much time off. ... it's almost as much time off that I take during the summer. But then you have the offseason and training camp to get back up to speed. So it's a learning process and I think I've learned a lot on how to be better prepared if it were to happen again."
Mental and physical
Canes coach Kirk Muller has used Skinner at center and wing since Skinner's return. He moved Skinner back to left wing, with Jussi Jokinen at center, on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But regardless of Skinner's position, Muller recently said he does not want him believing he has to be the difference every shift or has to make the "game-breaking play."
"He wants to make a difference, he cares, he wants to do well," Muller said. "If he goes five or six shifts and doesn't create anything, that's OK as long as he's doing the right stuff."
But it's tough, Skinner said, not to be impatient after sitting out so long.
"As much as it is physical, coming back, a lot of it is mental," Skinner said. Under the radar
Skinner has taken some bad penalties, has had flashes of anger. But he had a three-game point streak that ended Saturday in the 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay and appears to be back playing at his pace.
"I've just got to be patient," Skinner said. "You don't want to force anything. That's when you get in trouble. You get frustrated and you get off your game and you're not thinking of the right things.
"The last couple of weeks I've felt better mentally and physically getting back and contributing."
A year ago, when he scored 31 goals and his 63 points led the NHL's rookies, Skinner received teen-idol fawning and was besieged with media requests.
The stretch run of his second season should be a lot more sedate - not that he's pining for attention.
"It's not bad to sort of fly under the radar," Skinner said. "Last year, with everything, was a lot. Coming into my second year I was more prepared for it and knew how to handle it.
"But I don't mind it. Those little things are secondary - if they're there, if they're not, they're not. You can't get hung up on it because you can't really control it. I just have to go out and play."