Two weeks later, Canes are very much back

Two weeks ago, the Carolina Hurricanes where in a bad place.

Losers of four straight and seven of 10 overall, the Canes were seemingly sliding out of the playoff race.

I spoke with Eric Staal on March 14 on the eve of a game in Buffalo that couldn't be any bigger. The Hurricanes captain calmly, but confidently, assured me that his team would turn things around in large part because of his belief that his team's recent spell wasn't as bad as it looked. He felt the team was playing well but not getting results.

Prophetic? A 1-0 win in Buffalo the next night began a stretch of six wins in eight games and voila, the Canes are three points out with a fighting chance. Staal's confidence two weeks ago was well-placed.

"It's good that we have that belief," Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice told ESPN.com Thursday. "I think that's one of the most important things your team has to learn over the course of the season is how is [the] team really playing? It's nice when you win when you shouldn't, and then sometimes you lose when you think you should have won. We were playing some pretty good hockey. The quality of our effort was high."

That confidence has been there all season long throughout the ups and downs.

"Yeah, I think so," sensational rookie Jeff Skinner told ESPN.com Thursday. "Even the games we've lost, we've been in most of them. I also think the leadership group that we have with Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Cory Stillman and Tim Gleason, you look around the room at all the guys that have been there, that's really helped. And having Cam Ward back there every night lifts our confidence."

Wins in back-to-back nights over Washington and Montreal this week have the Canes inching towards the Sabres and Rangers, both three points up, but also the sixth-place Canadiens who are slumping and only five points ahead with Carolina holding a game in hand.

It's all there for Carolina's taking over the last five games due in large part to a head-to-head showdown once again with the Sabres on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.

"That one has been circled for an awfully long time, we know that's a must-win game for us," said Maurice.

But as Maurice said, first comes a game at Long Island on Saturday afternoon, and the Islanders have not been an easy prey in the second half. Carolina closes out its regular season with a home game against Detroit, a road tilt at Atlanta and a home date with Tampa Bay.

Right now, the atmosphere on the resurgent Hurricanes is one of the reasons Maurice believes they've got a shot. These are high-pressured games with the season on the line, but his players are having a blast.

"They seem to be enjoying coming to the rink," said the coach. "When you have to start kicking them off the ice at the end of practice because they're still out screwing around, you know that's a good sign."

One of those kids he can't get off the ice is the 18-year-old Skinner, who doesn't turn 19 until May. The rookie forward scored three goals in those two big wins this week, seemingly thriving the bigger the game gets.

"That might be the telling statement," said Maurice. "You can talk about his talent and all that, but he plays his best in the big games. He produces. It's been true all year. It's been true in the third period. He's a gamer. He likes being on the ice at critical points in the game and makes great things happen."

"We've had some big games and we're going to continue to have some, it's pretty exciting," added Skinner.

Skinner leads all NHL rookies with 58 points (29-29), five ahead of Logan Couture before the equally impressive San Jose Sharks center took to the ice Thursday night. It's a deep list of rookies this season, but when members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association soon sit down to fill out their Calder ballots, it'll likely be a 1-2 decision between Skinner and Couture.

"It's a pretty special award and the history behind it is pretty cool," said Skinner. "But at the same time, I'm just focused on the last five games here. After the season maybe I'll think about that."

The Calder can wait. Right now, Skinner and his teammates want to extend their season.