The story in this game was supposed to be the debut of former NHL player Kirk Muller as head coach of the struggling Carolina Hurricanes. As it was with Pete DeBoer facing his former team for the first time, the Panthers instead made the attention focus on them, winning a close game 3-1 with some heroics by Shawn Matthias and Tomas Kopecky late in the third. Despite a slow start and some great pressure by Carolina, the Cats managed to stand tall and walk away with a win mostly due to the sterling play of netminder Jose Theodore, whose efforts kept Florida in the game many times throughout and especially in the first. With the tough road trip ahead, it's great to see the Panthers come out of Raleigh with a win and a hard-working one at that, but more than anything it's refreshing to see the top line didn't have to do all the scoring.
Florida did a pretty good job of keeping Carolina bottled up for the start of the game despite the jolt of energy that a team usually has when a coaching change takes place. The Panthers top line once again provided the best scoring chances, although Sean Bergenheim worked hard to earn a few as well. The first penalty came against the Cats with about thirteen minutes left in the period, as Mike Santorelli was caught for holding. Carolina had one of the worst powerplays in the NHL coming into this game, though Muller was renowned for his special teams work during his tenure in Montreal. Florida had little trouble killing off the penalty, with Carolina only getting one good scoring chance during the advantage. The Cats did well in keeping most of the following chances to the perimeter, helping Theodore out quite a bit. The Canes nearly put one in as Jeff Skinner got a golden chance from the slot, but Theodore was up to the task and stoned the shot. The ice seemed to tilt a bit towards the Panther net at this point as Carolina started to find their legs. Florida had trouble getting out of their own zone with speed, greatly limiting their chances on Cam Ward. Carolina again nearly scored off a scrum in front but somehow Theodore sprawled out and kept the puck out of the net. The Cats seemed to get caught flat-footed in some ways and weren't winning enough battles unless the top line was out there. Kris Versteeg had a nice rush towards Ward but was decked in the face after getting the puck deep, and there should have been an interference call or an elbowing call, as Joslin nailed him right in the nose with an elbow. The teams traded chances from there on and went to the locker room knotted at zero. The Cats only managed a paltry two shots in the period.
Theodore opened the period stuffing Eric Staal on a great shot from the high slot, leading you to believe that this was going to be a rough period if the Cats didn't pick things up and start skating harder. The Canes dominated puck possession for most of the start of the period as the Panthers couldn't generate any sustained offensive pressure. The Panthers were getting outworked and it eventually resulted in another powerplay for Carolina, with Tomas Fleischmann getting called for hooking while trying to contain Skinner. Florida didn't get their first shot until a little over six minutes into the period, and again it was the top line applying some solid pressure. The Cats fourth line nearly scored shortly after, with Mark Cullen stealing the puck from Ward and throwing it in front. Matthias took the Panthers third penalty next for hooking, giving Carolina yet another chance on the powerplay. Florida took care of business with Theodore making some solid saves and Kopecky nearly scoring shorthanded. The Panthers finally got on the man advantage as Gord Dwyer took a boarding call, and the Cats made them pay as Fleischmann absolutely ripped a slapshot high over Ward. It was as perfectly a placed slapshot as you'll see; a beauty. Unfortunately for Florida, some poor defensive play by Erik Gudbranson let Skinner get a rebound past Theodore, tying the game at one. The teams went back and forth for the rest of the period, with some great saves by Theodore as Carolina kept bringing the pressure, but neither team could score a second and went to intermission tied.
The Cats came out with some good offensive zone pressure, but got into even more penalty trouble as Ed Jovanovski took a terrible interference call in the defensive zone with the puck nowhere around. Dineen had to be pretty upset at both the number of penalties and the relative worth of said penalties, as a lot of them were of the undisciplined variety. The Cats killed off the penalty yet again, but got into some trouble as they were once again unable to clear the zone during five on five play, and were nearly scored upon again were it not for some good saves by Theodore. Florida's second line of Santorelli, Kopecky and Marco Sturm had a great shift in the Carolina zone but couldn't capitalize. Not long later, Mike Weaver nailed Jack Skille with a beautiful outlet pass for a clean breakaway, and he was blanketed enough by the Carolina D to warrant a penalty shot. Unfortunately for Skille, he couldn't beat Ward high glove side and the game remained tied. The Panthers got another powerplay as former Panther Bryan Allen took an interference call against Sturm, but it wouldn't last as Gudbranson took a holding call while trying to slow down a Carolina shorthanded rush. The teams skated four on four, then Carolina got an abbreviated powerplay, which Florida promptly killed off. Carolina managed to keep the puck in the zone though and nearly scored while outworking the seemingly tired Panthers. Florida had a beautiful rush shortly after with Stephen Weiss drawing Ward out of his net and nearly hitting Fleischmann, but the pass was in his skates and he couldn't pop it into the empty net. Carolina responded with some great pressure by their third line and, yet again, Florida had one hell of a time clearing their own zone. I don't know how many times I'll have to type that this season, but it's enough already that I've made a keyboard macro so I can save my fingers the repetitive keystrokes. With about three minutes left, Florida scored a huge goal to gain the 2-1 lead, as Matthias and Kopecky forechecked well and Matthias potted his fourth of the year at the right time. The Canes pulled Ward to get the extra attacker out, but Matthias decided he wasn't done as he stole the puck away from the Carolina D and put in an empty netter for his second of the night. Carolina pulled Ward yet again, but Florida weathered the storm and walked away with a 3-1 victory.
- Theodore was brilliant for the Panthers in this game. He's the reason they won this game, thanks to some undisciplined penalties and lackluster play in the defensive zone by the team in front of him. He gets the hard hat, the superhero cape, and the first star.
- The non-call on the elbowing against Versteeg was surprising, and it left Versteeg bloodied and pissed. Even though there was no call on the play, there's a chance that will get reviewed by the league and possibly disciplined. And although it's not always worth the dumb penalty, I think many of us would like to see someone start to emerge as the enforcer on the team, ready to mete out punishment when warranted.
- He may not be scoring much, but Bergenheim is working very hard on all areas of the ice. It seems he could benefit from second-line minutes most games as he is working hard and skating hard. His work on the PK was great again as well.
- Speaking of the PK, assistant coach Gord Murphy has those groups playing great. They had active sticks all night, clogging every passing lane and keeping shots to the outside. The power play may have cooled off but the penalty kill is just continuing to heat up.
- The Panthers had a lot of trouble getting out of their own zone and getting into the Carolina zone with speed for one big reason: the forwards were too deep on breakouts. The Cats like to stretch the ice by making the opposition's defense hold the offensive blue line, as Florida is a very fast team and can break out quickly and effectively, punishing teams who cheat. As a response, Carolina's blueliners would step up on the Panthers efforts to pass out of the zone, intercepting a lot of them and keeping the offensive zone pressure on the Cats. Two ways to fix that? Forwards need to come down a bit deeper to help breakouts, or the D has to start going high off the glass and not on the ice.
- Skinner's so quick and makes very quick and smart decisions with the puck. He just has a natural nose for the net and getting both the pretty goals and the garbage goals, and provided he stays healthy over the course of his career, he'll become the top threat in Carolina, not Staal.
- Gudbranson needs to find the nasty, physical side of his game, and fast. The first goal by Carolina could have been prevented if he had just applied a good hit to Skinner, who is way smaller and could be easily outmuscled. Not sure why he's playing so timid physically, because if Gudbranson is going to find success in the NHL, it's not going to be because he's an offensive defenseman, it's going to be because he makes opposing forwards pay for being in the offensive zone battles.
- Dmitry Kulikov blocked a shot in the second and did not return. The official update was a lower body injury; not good news. The actual injury looked more like a cut on the ankle from a skate blade. Hopefully Kuli is alright and it's just a minor cut and nothing more.
- Skille probably wishes he could've had that penalty shot back. I think Jack has less moves in his book than Steve Urkel. Yes, I'm dating myself with that joke, but I'm comfortable with my age.
- Props to Matthias for his second goal in as many games (and a third!). He's working hard and scoring the types of goals that secondary scoring lines must provide. Also, he has a fantastic stache. Also props to Kopecky for making the safe, smart play and just throwing it on net on Matty's first goal. More often than not, the simple play is the best play.