It was a little more than seven hours before game time Thursday and Jeff Skinner was looking for answers.
The Carolina Hurricanes forward, the team’s best sniper, had not scored a goal in 13 games. He was stuck on 20 goals for the season, getting enough shots but not finding the net.
Asked to assess his season, Skinner said, “Not that great, I think. Obviously not ideal. It’s frustrating. I think you look … I don’t know, there are a lot of words to sort of sum it up.”
Skinner had a career-high 37 goals last season and was torrid down the stretch. But as the Canes faded out of playoff contention this season, Skinner could not do what he does best, score goals, to change it.
“It’s frustrating when you get opportunities to impact the outcome of games and you’re not able to finish those chances,” he said.
As if determined to change that, and quickly, Skinner scored 48 seconds into the game Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes at PNC Arena. He then had the game-winner with 1:58 left in regulation, scoring off the rush with a sharp backhander past goalie Darcy Kuemper in the 6-5 victory.
Skinner was on a line with Elias Lindholm at center and Phil Di Giuseppe on the right wing, Di Giuseppe finishing with a goal and two assists and Lindholm two assists — eight points in all for the line.
“Phil and ‘Lindy’ were hard on pucks, making plays all night,” Skinner said. “It was fun playing with those two.”
That from a veteran forward who now has 202 career goals. Imagine how much fun it was for a rookie forward who had one goal before the game and now has three.
Valentin Zykov scored his first career goal in his NHL debut last season for the Hurricanes after being recalled from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. Injured in his second game, Zykov did not play again.
As Zykov continued to pile up goals for the Checkers this season — 15, 20, 25, 30 — many began to wonder when the 6-1, 224-pound Russian would get the call, get to play. It’s not as if the Canes were scoring many goals, and Zykov was leading the AHL.
But Zykov, 22, is up now and playing. He wasn’t that noticeable in his first game on Tuesday in the Canes’ miserable 7-3 loss to Edmonton, but drew everyone’s attention Thursday, scoring twice and being named the game’s first star.
Placed on a line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, Zykov first flashed down the slot and scored in the first period off an Aho pass. He scored again midway through the third, barreling his way to the crease and banging the puck in for a 5-5 tie.
“He’s a big, heavy, thick guy and he’s got some courage and he goes to the net,” Canes coach Bill Peters said.
Zykov scored 16 goals in 66 games for the Checkers a year ago, but said he went to a longer stick this past November.
“A little longer and with a different curve,” he said. “Not a big adjustment. But with the new one I had more control of the puck.”
Saying he often played on a line with center Lucas Wallmark and winger Andrew Miller in Charlotte, Zykov started scoring. His 32 goals, 16 on the power player, led the AHL when he was recalled this week.
“It all depends on who you’re playing with,” Zykov said. “You can’t really have like all three guys being shooters. You always need a guy feeding you, the guy who executes. I just try to adjust to my partners and we have good chemistry.”
Zykov is the first Russian-born skater to score 30 goals or more in an AHL season since Artem Anisimov in the 2008–09 season. But his focus now in on staying on that line with Aho and Teravainen.
“I have more confidence and feel more comfortable this time,” Zykov said of being with the Canes.
For Skinner, it may be more a sense of relief. Before the game, he talked of continuing to work and generate scoring chances. “Sooner or later it will go in,” he said.
It did. Twice.