The Carolina Hurricanes entered this past weekend with a share of the Southeast division lead at 19 points in this truncated season, yet found themselves without a win against an opponent from the Southeast. With a home-and-home series against the Florida Panthers, the Canes had a golden opportunity to collect four points and get two wins over a division rival at the same time.
The opening game of the series was played at PNC arena in Raleigh. The Canes were fresh off of a dominating performance against the Penguins and had several key players that were back from injury. The Panthers handed the Hurricanes and embarrassing 5-1 loss on opening night in Sunrise, and the Canes had revenge on their minds.
The first period saw four tallies, three of which came from guys in Hurricane sweaters. Jussi Jokinen opened scoring with a quick snapshot across goaltender Scott Clemmensen six and a half minutes into the game for a 1-0 lead. Clemmensen came in for relief after starting goaltender Jose Theodore was injured on a collision, an injury that turned out to be a torn groin muscle that will keep Theodore on the shelf for close to the remainder of the season. Just two minutes later, Jiri Tlusty continued his hot streak by netting his 9th of the season. Less than a minute after that, Jokinen took a centering pass from Riley Nash to score his second of the night. With a 3-0 lead in the first 10 minutes, the Canes finally gave up a goal as Shawn Mathias used his big frame to screen a defender and pot one for the Panthers.
Instead of wilting with a two-goal lead, the Canes kept the pressure on and five minutes into the second period, Riley Nash got his first career NHL goal on a two-on-one situation. Eric Staal added a goal with seven minutes remaining in the period and Filip Kuba scored with seconds remaining in the period. With a 5-2 lead, the Canes just played a semi-conservative third period, but were still able to control play. Staal added his second goal of the night and the Canes ended up winning by the score of 6-2. .
The Canes traveled to Florida for the second end of the home-and-home hoping that they still had some left in the tank from the night before. After jumping on the Panthers early the night before, the Canes expected, and received, some early sustained pressure. Goaltender Cam Ward made some big saves to preserve the 0-0 tie. Justin Faulk broke that tie with just under two minutes remaining in the period on a slap shot. Alex Semin scored exactly one minute later on a redirection in front of Clemmensen, who made the start after entering the previous night’s game in relief of Theodore. The Canes took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission and emotions were running high for the team.
The second period saw those emotions come to a screeching halt however, as Faulk and Panther Justin Skille crashed into Ward. Ward stayed in the game but off of a save soon after the incident, it was clear that he would be unable to continue. Ward was helped off the ice with a sprained knee, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks of action. Jordan Staal netted the third goal of the night for the Canes to extend their lead to three and that would prove to be the game winner. Panther’s rookie Jonathan Huberdeau scored towards the end of the second and again with roughly one minute remaining in regulation, but the rally wasn’t enough as the Canes secured their second win in as many nights over the Panthers. Goaltender Dan Ellis came in and made 19 saves in relief of Ward, and was originally scheduled to start the second game but was unable to go due to flu-like symptoms.
The Canes sit atop the division with 25 points and look to be playing some of their best hockey of the season. The loss of Ward however looms large for this team, as it’s typically been a team that goes as far as their goaltending can take them. Ward is out for close to the remainder of the regular season, and the team needs Dan Ellis to step up big in his absence. With only a handful of weeks remaining in the regular season, the Canes need to dig down deep and play well in front of their backup goaltender in order to solidify a spot in this year’s playoffs. Expect general manager Jim Rutherford to be active towards the trade deadline for a veteran defenseman to help bolster the team’s blue-line.