One night after allowing 50 shots and seven goals to the Panthers in Florida, the Canes responded with a stifling effort that saw a season-best 20 shots by the same opposition make it to goaltender Cam Ward in a 3-2 victory on home ice Saturday. Captain Eric Staal had two goals for the home team, while 18-year-old Jeff Skinner had a goal and an assist to retain his place as the team’s scoring leader.
The win, which was the eighth consecutive victory for the home team in the Carolina-Florida division series, concludes a seven-games-in-11-nights run that, for Paul Maurice, was the third major hurdle in the team’s early-season slate after their trip to Europe and subsequent five-game road trip across North America.
“I’m really proud of the way they learn their lessons and seem to bounce back,” said Maurice of his team, which improved to 7-7-0 on the season. “This is as tough of a physical grind as I think I’ve ever seen in 12 or 13 years in the NHL for a team to have to go through what we did. To response in the last game of a very heavy schedule and play maybe our best defensive game of the season, I was really happy with that.”
“It was about work ethic and execution,” said Erik Cole, who recorded an assist. “Last night we didn’t have it and tonight we did. We played a much tougher game to play against, and I think it showed.
Staal’s two goals, the second of which would stand up as the game-winner in the third period, tied and then surpassed Jeff O’Neill’s 198 tallies for fourth place in franchise history. His next goal will be his 200th.
“It was a better effort from everybody, including myself,” said Staal, whose seven shots on goal tied Florida’s Michael Frolik for the highest of the game. “I wasn’t happy with the way I played last night. We were a lot stingier tonight, more aggressive with tighter gaps and better back pressure by everybody.”
“I thought that was 59 minutes of the best game Eric Staal has played this year,” said Maurice, using Staal’s desire to net the hat trick in the closing minutes as the only exception. “I know he scored two goals, but it was all the other things he did – the patience, short shifts and leading by example. That is the mental part of the game – your leaders have to buy into it.”
Staal opened the scoring in the second period on a lengthy five-on-three power play that was night and day different than the one the Hurricanes had wasted one night earlier in south Florida. The Canes, who iced a five-forward unit, had several chances to score but finally broke through when Skinner quickly retrieved a weak Florida clear at center ice and brought it back into the zone before the majority of Panther penalty killers could go off on a change.
After that, it took just seconds for Skinner to find the red-hot Sergei Samsonov, who has 5 points in his last 3 games. Samsonov’s pass from behind the net went to a wide-open Staal in the slot, who made no mistake in rifling a hard shot past goaltender Scott Clemmensen.
“Even if we hadn’t scored on that five-on-three, at least we could live with it because we made the goaltender make a bunch of saves,” said Maurice. “You can get momentum on a power play you don’t score on as long as you’ve moved and done some things. I glad they scored, because they deserved it.”
Staal’s second goal, which made the game 3-1, represented the kind of fortuitous bounce that had eluded the Hurricanes in back-to-back home shutouts to start their RBC Center schedule last week. Coming into the offensive zone with speed and taking it wide, his shot hit the stick blade of defenseman Dennis Wideman, who redirected it past his own goaltender rather than batting it out of the air as he had intended.
If that goal was a little on the lucky side, as Staal later admitted, Skinner’s goal in the opening minutes of the third period was fully earned. The play was made by Cole, one of the better Carolina forwards in an otherwise disappointing opener to the home-and-home series, who used his trademark speed down the right wing to fight off a Florida defender before circling the net and sending a perfect feed into the heart of the crease for his waiting linemate.
“He has had an outstanding start to his season,” said Maurice of Cole, who now has 8 points in 14 games to go along with a team-leading plus-8 rating. “He is, for me, skating as well as I’ve seen him skate and powerful.”
As for Skinner, this summer’s first-round draft choice now averages nearly a point-per-game to begin his NHL career, registering his 11th and 12th points against the Panthers. As of this writing, he enjoys a 4-point lead in the rookie scoring race and has possibly even surpassed the lofty expectations placed on him in the preseason.
“He’s a very, very good hockey player,” said Maurice. “We’re going to enjoy watching to see what he can do at this age.”
Florida’s tallies came in the third period, when enforcer Darcy Hordichuk banged in a loose puck from in close exactly one minute after Skinner had given the home team a 2-0 lead, and in the dying moments when Frolik surprised Ward with a spinning shot from along the boards.
From there, Florida was able to sustain some pressure in the offensive zone but was unable to break through before time expired. Carolina improved its all-time record against Florida at the RBC Center to 25-5-2.
The Canes now have two days off before resuming their schedule against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday. That game begins a much tamer stretch of the schedule that includes four of the next six contests at the RBC Center and just eight games in the next 20 days.
Maurice said that defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, was doubtful for the team’s next contest.