RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes surged past the Pittsburgh Penguins to earn a 5-2 win in front of a crowd of 13,738 in attendance at PNC Arena on Thursday.
It was the fourth and final matchup of the season between two teams that were enduring similar recent challenges, but headed in different directions as the NHL regular season moved one game closer to its conclusion.
While Carolina (27-36-10) split the season series with the Pens, it will not participate in the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season, whereas Pittsburgh (40-23-11) will be playing in the postseason for the ninth straight year.
While winning only twice in nine games would be expected of a team in Carolina’s position, sitting at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, a similar lapse by the Penguins is uncharacteristic.
The loss added to the recent slide during which the Penguins have recorded only one victory in their last seven games.
Carolina’s outburst of scoring, netting four goals or more in a game, hadn’t happened since a 7-4 win over Edmonton back on Mar. 8.
“There was a lot of offense both ways,” Carolina head coach Bill Peters said.
“I thought they had some real good looks and so did we. I thought Eric had a bunch of good looks that he didn’t quite finish on, but generated some quality, Grade A chances. There were some plays being made out there both ways.”
Hurricanes captain Eric Staal led all scorers with a goal and two assists, while Ryan Murphy, Jay McClement, Alexander Semin, and Andrej Nestrasil scored singles.
Goaltender Cam Ward made his first start in five games and recorded 27 saves to earn the win.
Brandon Sutter and Ian Cole scored for Pittsburgh while Marc-Andre Fleury made 23 stops in the loss.
Both teams began at a choppy pace which included playing a relatively aggressive game with Carolina outhitting the Penguins by a 35-24 margin,
The Penguins assumed the upper hand early when Sutter managed to bat a falling puck past Ward at the 3:54 mark of the opening period.
While both teams played four-aside due to offsetting roughing penalties to Malone and Pittsburgh’s Maxim LaPierre, Sidney Crosby flipped a waist-high pass to Sutter in Ward’s crease area.
As the puck dropped, the former Hurricanes center batted it between the keeper’s pads to put the Pens ahead 1-0.
It was Sutter’s 17th goal of the season.
It didn’t take Carolina long to respond as Staal scored his 20th of the season 71 seconds later, and evened the score 1-1.
Staal’s wrist shot beat Fleury low to the glove side after brother Jordan slid a pass to him from behind the goal line.
At the other end, Ward stood tall as Chris Kunitz almost put Pittsburgh ahead again after Sutter turned the puck over with a stick check on Hurricanes defenseman John-Michael Liles.
Fortunately for Ward, after Kunitz got the pass from Sutter, his quick snap shot got entangled in the net outside his right post.
According to Ward, the miss was a pivotal play in the game.
“At the start of the game, I was a little bit anxious,” Ward said.
“I was excited about getting out there. Once I made a couple of saves, the nerves calmed down. For me, the turning point was probably when Kunitz’s go-ahead chance hit the outside of the net. I reacted as if it went in and I took that as a good break, and I was strong the rest of the way…I wasn’t sure what happened. To be honest, I thought he had me beat, so to see that get reversed, and know that he didn’t beat me was a big confidence boost there.”
Murphy scored his third of the season soon after, on a setup from Victor Rask and Malone at 8:27.
Malone jumped into the rush as he stepped onto the ice after serving his second penalty of the period which Carolina killed off successfully.
After Rask gained the Pittsburgh blueline, he chipped the puck up the boards to Malone who found Murphy open in the slot.
With Jay McClement tying up Pittsburgh defender Derrick Pouliot on the crease, Murphy had time and space to beat Fleury high to put Carolina ahead 2-1.
Ward came up with a tremendous glove save on David Perron and kept the Hurricanes ahead with under nine minutes to play.
During the second period, Ward had Pittsburgh defenseman Chris Letang cursing.
After Daniel Winnink picked the puck away from Faulk, he found Letang wide open in front of Ward.
It was evident that the Penguins blueliner was certain he would score.
Ward robbed him of that chance, making a tremendous stop to keep Carolina’s one-goal lead intact with 15 minutes to play.
At the other end, Fleury stoned Nash on a similar scoring attempt at the midpoint of the period.
A minute later, Ward drew the attention back as he made a pad save on Sutter who was streaking in off the left wing.
McClement put Carolina ahead 3-1 with a wrist shot that beat Fleury low to the blocker side at 11:38.
Faulk carried the puck into the Pittsburgh zone and dropped it back to Malone who then found McClement open in the slot to score his seventh of the season.
“You just gotta’ stay in shape and stay focused, so when you get the call, you come in and contribute the best way you can,” Malone said.
Semin then scored his fifth of the season at 14:56, and extended the Carolina lead to 4-1.
Faulk led the breakout and headmanned the puck to Staal, who then found Riley Nash breaking down the center lane of the Penguins zone.
Nash slid a backhand pass across the slot to a wide-open Semin who redirected the puck into the net behind an out of position Fleury.
It was Semin’s first goal since Mar. 8.
Throughout the final period of play, Ward continued to deny Pittsburgh any opportunity to pull closer.
With 10 minutes remaining, he made another point-blank save on Blake Comeau as the Hurricanes held on to their three-goal margin.
Nestrasil then scored on the power play to put Carolina ahead 5-1 with 6:46 to play.
Elias Lindholm initiated the man-advantage sequence from the side wall and found Staal in the slot and Nestrasil sitting on the edge of the crease to Fleury’s left.
Staal redirected the puck to Nestrasil who completed the tic-tac-toe play.
It was the Hurricanes’ only power play goal of the night on three chances afforded, while the penalty kill finished 3-for-3.
Ward was caught off guard one final time before the horn sounded.
Cole cut the lead to 5-2 with 4:05 to go.
With the play forming near the Hurricanes bench, the puck transitioned over to the defensemen on the right wing who snapped a shot that beat Ward high as he was distracted by increased traffic in front of him.
While securing an impressive win, and capitalizing on scoring chances to close the gap after being outshot most of the game, Carolina’s players realized they will end the season making efforts that won’t contribute towards a run at the postseason this year, but hopefully for the future.
“It’s not easy to be honest,” Staal said.
“It’s been a number of years to get back to being a team that’s in the playoffs. You know, not again this year, so it’s disappointing. We’re professional athletes. We’re here to perform for our fans and the people that come to watch, so we’re gonna’ continue to work and compete. Bill’s not gonna’ have it any other way which is good – the way it should be. We’re building a base here. We’re building a structure that’s gonna’ bring us back to where we wanna’ be. It’s gonna’ continue the way it is now into next season.”
Notes: Staal’s goal gave him his ninth season with 20 or more goals; second in team history to executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis (14 seasons with 20+ goals)…Rask’s assist on the play put him at 30 points on the season, the sixth rookie in team history since relocation to reach that mark… Crosby’s assist on Sutter’s goal helped to push him into the NHL scoring lead with 75 points.