Sidelined the past 44 games, Canes defenseman Joni Pitkanen has been activated off injured reserve and will be in the lineup tonight against the Florida Panthers. Canes coach Kirk Muller said today that Pitkanen would be paired with Jamie McBain.
"He's ready to go," Muller said after the morning skate. "I talked to him this morning and he feels good mentally, physically. He's excited and it will be fun to get him back."
Pitkanen suffered a concussion Dec. 6 in the road game against the Calgary Flames after taking a hit from former Canes forward Tom Kostopoulos. A decision later was made for Pitkanen, who has had some knee issues in the past, to undergo knee surgery.
The Canes intially hoped Pitkanen might be able to return after the All-Star break. General manager Jim Rutherford then said it might be the first week of March, but the return date was pushed back again.
Muller said his plan was not to ease Pitkanen back in and limit his minutes.
"I hope he plays 30," Muller said, smiling. "He's been working hard. He's in a great shape. I think it's more important he just does short shifts to get his timing and get everything back in the flow.
"If he's going, we've got six D now that we feel really comfortable in playing. If all six are going I think we're a better team."
Jeff Skinner also returns tonight after being suspended the past two games and will be on Jussi Jokinen's line with Tuomo Ruutu. Eric Staal will center Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose, Brandon Sutter is at center with Pat Dwyer and Drayson Bowman, and Tim Brent will center Derek Joslin and Anthony Stewart. Cam Ward will be in goal.
The Panthers (36-23-13), coming off a 2-1 road win over the Philadelphia Flyers last night, are playing their best hockey. Their five-game winning streak is their longest of the season and they lead the Southeast Division by five points over the Washington Capitals.
"They're getting healthy again," Muller said. "They're getting good goaltending. They skate well. You look at all our games against them this year, they're all one-goal type games, low-scoring. So we have to find a way to generate more offense against them."
The Canes (29-29-15), who have won their last three, have not been over .500 since the first of November. Sitting 11th in the East with 73 points, they're seven points behind the eighth-place Caps knowing they need to all but run the table to make the playoffs, adding even more weight to tonight's game.
"It's been a little while here since every game seems to be like it has a playoff mentality," Muller said. "Now, as you get into the crunch, you're proving to people that you're not going away and we're battling every night. I think we're playing good hockey and giving ourselves a chance to win every night. This is a huge game for us."