After notching a total of three goals in their first three games, the Hurricanes looked sharp against the Florida Panthers on Friday night, spreading the wealth while chasing starting goalie Tomas Vokoun early in the third period en route to a 7-2 victory.
“You go three games and when people you expect to score don’t they feel it, and they feel it right away,” coach Paul Maurice said as he watched 12 different players register points. “Hopefully those guys are just a little more confident with the puck now.”
And the Canes continued their domination of Southeast Division teams, winning for the 17th time in the last 25 games, including Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout victory over Tampa Bay.
“We know how important these games are because we would like to win the division,” Matt Cullen said. “It certainly is a goal of ours. We definitely gear up for them.”
Cam Ward improved to 47-23-5 in his career against divisional opponents while the Canes are now 25-6-1 against the Panthers and Lightning at the RBC Center since the start of the 2005-06 season.
Ward’s save against Nathan Horton from point-blank range 29 seconds into the game may go unnoticed in a five-goal win, but it was a key stop that helped the club garner some early momentum.
“Cam has been good and he was good again,” Cullen said. “He was probably the difference. It was a pretty even game early and he made some big saves for us. The way he’s playing is what we need and I know he expects that from himself.”
Players flying recently in practice – Tuomo Ruutu and Cullen – parlayed that speed to game night, each registering a goal and an assist, while Jussi Jokinen had a three-point night as Carolina killed off all six penalties.
“It was good to see a bunch of guys kind of get the feel, get off the bubble with a lot of guys struggling to score goals,” Cullen said.
The Canes struggled offensively in their three opening games, but were able to score three in the first period alone, thanks in large part to two key turnovers by the Panthers and 16 shots on Vokoun.
Tom Kostopoulos scored his first goal with the Canes when he picked Florida captain Bryan McCabe clean as he was breaking out of his offensive zone on the power play. Vokoun stopped the first attempt by the Carolina right wing, but Kostopoulos was able to pound in his own rebound seven minutes in for a 1-0 lead and Carolina’s first short-handed goal of the season.
“That was just good pre-game video by our coaches,” Kostopoulos said of his shorty. “They said to pressure a certain way and you may get a turnover. I was surprised and I think my eyes were pretty big there, but it was good the team got off to a good start and it was good for our confidence.”
Less than four minutes later, Sergei Samsonov fed Ruutu on a breakaway for his first of the season. And another turnover by Florida late in the period, this time a mix-up behind the net between Vokoun and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov allowed Jokinen to swoop in and sweep the puck into the open net for a three-goal lead over the Southeast Division rival Panthers, who hadn’t played since logging two games in Finland six days ago.
After a stellar first period, Niclas Wallin notched a rare assist (just his 46th in 474 career games) when he made a perfect feed to send Ray Whitney in alone on Vokoun, who he faked out and slid the puck between his legs for a four-goal lead with 6:30 left in the second. Wallin had his best game of the season, playing 18:39 of ice time with Aaron Ward and finishing a plus-3.
Cam Ward lost his shutout bid late in the period after he couldn’t control two shots and the puck squirted free in the slot, giving Shawn Matthias an opportunity to score his first. Ward then made a pair of key saves in the final 45 seconds of the second to keep the Panthers at bay and send the Canes to the locker room with a three-goal lead.
Cullen’s blast from the top of the left circle 1:32 into the third sent Vokoun to the bench for the night, while Rod Brind’Amour and Jay Harrison (scoring his first career goal) closed out the scoring for the Canes over the final 4:46 against backup Alexander Salak, who was making his NHL debut.
NOTES: Scott Walker’s wife Julie sounded the Warning Siren as the Hurricanes hosted Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night. … Kostopoulos notched his sixth short-handed goal of his career. … Joni Pitkanen was sidelined again after missing the third period against Tampa Bay. … Harrison took his place in the lineup and was paired with Andrew Alberts. … Ruutu played in his 100th game with the Canes. … Carolina improved to 27-11-3 against Florida at home. … Eric Staal played in his 340th straight game. … Carolina outhit the Panthers 32-10 after pushing Tampa Bay around 42-25.