RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes filled the net early and often in putting together a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers at PNC Arena on Friday.
Riley Nash, Alexander Semin, Brett Bellemore, Jiri Tlusty and Andrej Sekera tallied a goal apiece as the Hurricanes brought themselves two points closer to a playoff spot, while goaltender Anton Khudobin made 34 saves and earned his 13th win of the season.
The Panthers were ripe for the picking after playing the night before at home and finishing three games in four nights against the Hurricanes.
“The feedback was a tough game for them last night, and they were gonna’ come in and play hard here and they did,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said.
“Actually, they’ve been playin’ that way recently, so we said we gotta’ match their hard work and we gotta’ work just as hard tonight. We gotta’ keep structure in our game, but we gotta’ be ready for a good first period, and I thought we had a good first.”
Carolina challenged Florida starting netminder Tim Thomas early on as Jeff Skinner slid a pass to linemate Elias Lindholm who redirected it towards the net, but the veteran goalie was in position to stop it with his body.
The tempo of the game looked to be at a higher level than the Hurricanes’ previous outing, a 2-1 loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday.
Both goalies were put to the test early on, similar to the two teams’ previous meeting on Jan. 18 when Carolina topped the Panthers 3-2.
Minutes after Thomas made his save on Lindholm, Khudobin had to make the save on a similar tip play as Scottie Upshall redirected a shot on goal that didn’t make it through either.
As the play developed in the Florida zone, Nash made a pass to defenseman John Michael Liles who placed a shot on net that required Thomas to make a big right pad save on.
Skinner soon followed up with a short-side attempt as the Hurricanes maintained their offensive pressure on the Panthers.
At 9:17 Nash opened the game’s scoring off a pass from Tuomo Ruutu that originated from the side boards and put the Hurricanes ahead 1-0.
The young forward took a second to settle the rolling puck before snapping it over Thomas’ glove into the top corner to score his eighth goal of the season.
Ruutu earned the lone assist on the play to commemorate playing in his 600th career game.
“He’s been accurate with his shots,” Muller said of Nash.
“Last 10 games he’s one of our hotter goal scorers right now. He’s playing the game simple. They’re creatin’ their chances by getting’ an aggressive forecheck goin’, and he’s capitalizing on his chances which is good. He’s feelin’ a little more comfortable and he’s getting’ his shots off more.”
After Thomas made a pad save on a Sekera point shot just 87 seconds later, the puck was tapped in the air by a couple of players from both teams before it ended up on Semin’s stick to put Carolina ahead 2-0.
In setting up his shot on net, the versatile Russian skater pirouetted in a full circle to get control of the puck before letting a snap shot go through traffic and over Thomas’ stick side.
With six minutes remaining in the opening period and trailing by two goals, the Panthers began to surround Khudobin and Tomas Fleishman missed a prime opportunity to score on an open net.
Nick Bjugstad finally brought Florida to within one goal at the 15:33 mark after Khudobin made a pad save on a point shot from Dylan Olsen.
Bjugstad put the puck back towards the Hurricanes keeper, and it somehow found its way just beneath his blocker and trickled past the goal line to narrow the Hurricanes lead to 2-1.
With 1:39 remaining, Bellemore blasted the Hurricanes’ third goal of the period past Thomas.
A pass from Skinner to Lindholm was eventually pushed towards him at the top of the circle and Bellemore had more than enough time to tee up his shot.
“Lindy kind of laid it there for me,” Bellemore said.
“It was a little on end so I was more focused on making good contact. He (Thomas) was just coming over a little bit so I thought if I kept it low, it has a shot, and if not, it could be a good rebound.”
Fortunately for Bellemore his shot gave him his second career NHL goal and put Carolina ahead 3-1 heading into the second period.
Tlusty added to the Hurricanes lead at 4:36 of the second period after Eric Staal intercepted a Florida breakout pass that ricocheted off Sean Bergenheim’s skate.
Thomas made the pad save on Staal’s shot from the slot, but lost sight of the rebound which Tlusty swiped into the open net as it sat in the crease.
With Carolina leading 4-1, Thomas was replaced with goaltender Scott Clemmensen who finished the remainder of the game for Florida.
Both teams took a combined total of seven penalties throughout the period and during one of the Hurricanes’ power plays, Tomas Kopecky missed scoring a short-handed opportunity as his shot attempt on net slowly slid between Khudobin and Liles and hit the post while they both watched it go by.
At the 5:29 mark, Bellemore squared off with Florida defender Erik Gundbrandson in the featured and only fisticuff of the night.
Both dropped their gloves in the middle of the Hurricanes zone, just as the puck dropped for a faceoff to Khudobin’s left.
As the crowd noise and the arena music increased in volume, the two head-bobbed and twirled as they eventually grappled.
While each got a punch in, they grabbed hold of one another and Bellemore then managed to flip the Panthers defenseman on his back as they both fell to the ice to end the bout.
After both teams resumed play, Khudobin made a spectacular toe save on a breakaway opportunity from Bjugstad to keep the Carolina lead at three goals.
The netminder reached and successfully slid to get his skate on the puck as the forward’s forehand to backhand draw attempt slid towards the post.
Lapses in Carolina’s defensive play minutes later gave Bergenheim an opportune chance to score, but his shot rung off the post to Khudobin’s left.
With 7:12 left in the game, Sekera placed another point shot on goal and beat Clemmensen to extend the Hurricanes lead to 5-1.
The Slovakian defenseman finished the play that was initiated by Jordan Staal winning the faceoff back to Skinner who then slid it to him, allowing him ample time to place a wrist shot into the top corner.
“The goalie didn’t really see It,” Sekera said.
“It started with the draw. Staalsy won the draw and Skinny just gave it to me and I saw that there was a screen in front of the net. It was a simple play and it went in.”
Knowing that his team did not play a flawless defensive game against a game-worn opponent, the 5-1 victory for Muller and his squad was a well-earned one, particularly with Khudobin continuing to make stops in net.
“Our game was good,” Muller said.
“We came out strong today, but we had breakdowns and they got behind our D. They were startin’ to be a riskier team, takin’ chances, so that was the part we weren’t happy about tonight. When we did break down, he made the key saves. That was big for us.”