The Canes improved to 3-0 since Cam Ward’s back flared up, beating the Florida Panthers 4-1 Tuesday night for the club’s fourth straight home win.
Manny Legace had a quick glove and Carolina killed off all three penalties in front of their goalie to improve to 12-7 over the last 19 games and pull within eight games of .500 for the first time since Nov. 23.
“That’s what we need,” Tim Gleason said when asked about the team’s solid goaltending since Ward’s injury. “There is still a chance, so we’re battling every time we get on the ice. We’re having fun and there’s no pressure here. We’re playing as hard as we can.”
Tuomo Ruutu returned after missing 15 games with an upper-body injury and he appeared rusty, but Carolina didn’t need the rugged winger to produce on this night, although he did score an empty-netter with the game already out of reach.
Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen scored to stake the Canes to a lead, then Matt Cullen added some breathing room early in the third period just seconds after Carolina had killed off an interference penalty to Tom Kostopoulos.
Carolina has now been successful on 17 straight kills over a four-game stretch.
“We’ve all been on the same page, where if one guys goes we all go,” Gleason said. “If we can continue to do that and force teams into uncomfortable positions we can get the pucks out easier. It’s all about pressure.”
“It’s phenomenal, just phenomenal,” Legace added about the penalty killing, which allowed just two harmless shots by the Panthers. “It’s just hard work and dedication and you just take your hat off to the guys. We’re just working our butts off.”
Jokinen took the team lead in goals with 21 when he banged home a rebound off the pads of Tomas Vokoun, who had make a stick save on Eric Staal in close near the end of a Carolina power play. The second-period goal extended Jokinen’s point streak to a season-best seven straight games.
Midway through the period former Hurricane Cory Stillman tied the score at 1-1 when he scored in close as he was being hooked by Cullen.
However, Pitkanen used Florida’s center Gregory Campbell as a moving screen to beat Vokoun with seven minutes left in the period to give the Canes a 2-1 lead heading to the final 20 minutes.
Legace’s quick glove hand also helped the Canes stay in front as he snared shots targeted for the upper portion of the net off the sticks of the two most dangerous Panthers – Stephen Weiss and David Booth – in the final three minutes of the first two periods.
“I guess I can close my eyes with the best of them,” said Legace, downplaying his two great leather picks. “The guys played so well in front of me all night long.”
There was little offense in a scoreless first as the Canes managed just two shots on the period’s only two power plays while Florida hit the post on its best opportunity.
The best action came with the fists as two fights broke out with Gleason and Steven Goertzen dropping the gloves for the Canes. Later in the first, Gleason received 12 stitches when he took a puck to the face that was deflected off a stick.
“I guess the puck is finding my face,” Gleason joked when asked if he has more stitches this season than games played. “It’s brutal, I can’t say any more about it.”
The Canes have outscored opponents 17-5 during the team’s four-game home winning streak.
“When you get a little bit healthier it makes a big difference,” coach Paul Maurice said. “I thought Staal’s line had a lot of great chances, and having one more guy (Ruutu) makes a big difference with your team. When you feel good you’re more confident, better things happen and you’re more patient in the game. They are just skating as hard as they can … and there is more confidence in the room than there has been all year. We would like to just keep playing.”
NOTES: Carolina improved to 14-2-3 when Jokinen scores. … Brandon Sutter played in his 100th NHL game. … Jokinen has six goals and two assists during his seven-game point streak. … Pitkanen has 15 points in his last 15 games. … Rod Brind’Amour played in his 672nd game with the Canes, moving the captain within one of Jeff O’Neill for fourth place on the all-time franchise list. … Pitkanen’s 34 points gives him one more than he scored all of last season and to within 12 of his career high of 46 with Philadelphia in 2005-06. … Pitkanen became the 11th different player with at least one game-winning goal.