RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes fell for the rope-a-dope that the Florida Panthers played with them at PNC Arena on Friday.
Panthers captain Willie Mitchell provided the gut punch at 4:09 of the third period that made the Hurricanes shaky-kneed.
That was all it more or less took to beat Carolina 2-0 in front of 10,511 in attendance as Reilly Smith scored an empty-netter with 21 seconds remaining.
“It was a tight game,” Carolina Hurricanes alternate captain Jordan Staal said.
“I don’t think we gave up a whole lot. We really didn’t give up much, but it was tough to create too. They sat back in that 1-2-2 pretty solid and we had a tough time gettin’ through the neutral zone and getting’ on the forecheck with some pressure.”
With many looking on to see if winger Jeff Skinner’s scoring surge in recent games would continue, the Hurricanes hoped to even the two teams’ series after losing to Florida 4-1 back on Oct. 13.
Skinner came into the matchup against the Panthers with seven goals and an assist in his last four games, and a major contributor to Carolina’s 3-1-1 record in its last five games, the last four of which were on the road.
It didn’t work out that way and his streak ended.
Though Skinner had his chances, four shots on goal, Panthers netminder Roberto Luongo managed to make numerous glove and pad saves, 24 in all, to keep everyone on the Hurricanes roster off the score sheet.
It was his second shutout of the season, his second in his 31 starts against Carolina, and 70th of his career.
Hurricanes captain Eric Staal and linemate Kris Versteeg had chances to beat the keeper throughout, finishing with three and two quality shots respectively, but Luongo made the stops on all of them.
“He was good, he was good when he needed to be,” Staal said.
“He made a couple of ones that just hit him. Some nights that’ll go in, some nights they don’t and tonight they seemed to hit him. He was good in there for them. It was tight both ways.”
At the other end of the ice, Hurricanes netminder Cam Ward made his first start since a 6-5 loss at Dallas on Dec. 8, and wasn’t overly challenged in facing 17 shots.
“Not a lot of shots, but he looked confident, he looked square to the shooter,” Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters said of Ward.
“I thought he managed his rebounds real well and handled the puck well, so I thought he had a solid night myself.”
With the game still scoreless after two periods, the Panthers eventually picked up their intensity in working the puck along the boards and pounced at the right moment.
Initiated by the work of future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau eventually worked the puck from the left wall and corner into the slot where Mitchell pinched in to score his first goal of the season.
Mitchell one-timed the pass from Huberdeau past Ward, high over the keeper’s shoulder, and put Florida ahead 1-0 at 4:09 into the third period.
With ample time, Carolina had its chances to even the score, but couldn’t as Luongo had eyes on most pucks the Hurricanes sent his way.
It was a defensive breakdown that made the difference.
“Both teams checked well and they capitalized on one turnover and a D-zone breakdown,” Peters said.
“We talked about it after 40 minutes. You gotta know the importance of every shift. Every play, every shift matters. I thought we had it the puck along the wall and next thing you know, we didn’t quite get it out. We knew their D were in-zone active and they activated Willie Mitchell down the backside to the front of the net and caused enough confusion and he got open.”
Knowing they let one get away, even with two power play opportunities, the Hurricanes couldn’t counter-punch and didn’t have the ‘it’ factor they’ve had recently to generate any offense.
“There wasn’t a lot of room, a lot of Grade A opportunities, great chances,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said.
“We had a few looks on the power play that you’d like to see get a good bounce off of, but right now it’s not goin’ in. You always want to get that first goal, especially with how tight it was out there. It would have been nice early, especially them, coming in on a back-to-back. We just weren’t able to get the right bounce to go in. It stayed tight the rest of the game, and then one breakdown there that cost us and that was the difference.”