RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—Roller coasters clack and jerk their way up that initial hill, awkwardly dragged by a chain. But once the first car ascends the peak, it takes the entire train with it on a thrill ride. This, apparently, is what the Carolina Hurricanes’ season will be like.
On a night on which his pair of goals moved him into fourth on the franchise goal-scoring list, Eric Staal occupied that first car, leading a total team effort in a 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers less than 24 hours after an embarrassing three-goal loss to them in Miami. The Canes' record now stands even at 7-7.
The phrase of the night in the locker room was "back pressure." Staal talked about it after he stayed on the ice for the final two-plus minutes in a failed attempt to complete a hat trick on the empty net. Erik Cole talked about it when asked about his potent line with Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu. And coach Paul Maurice, explaining how the Canes limited Florida to just 20 shots only a night after having allowed them 50, quipped "Our shot-clock guy isn't on Red Bull. There's something to that. And I think so much of it was the back pressure by our forwards. We didn't give up nearly the odd-man rushes that we did last night."
Maurice might be taking his team's captain for granted. Centering Sergei Samsonov and Chad LaRose, Staal fired seven shots and was a force to be reckoned with all night. His first goal came on a masterful slapshot from the slot midway through the second period with the Canes on a two-man advantage. Perhaps frustrated with his blueliners' recent difficulty in getting the puck to the net, Maurice deployed five forwards in order to generate offense. Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen turned away several one-timers from close range before Staal finally beat him on a crisp feed from Samsonov.
Line combinations seem to be settling down for Carolina. Samsonov is finding Staal consistently on the top line, Skinner is leading all rookies in scoring on Cole's line, and Brandon Sutter is starting to generate chances for Jiri Tlusty and Patrick Dwyer while checking the opponents' top forwards. Jon Matsumoto, in just his fourth game, rounds out the rotation nicely between Tom Kostopoulos and the struggling Jussi Jokinen.
After the Panthers couldn't finish several prime chances to start the third, Cole unleashed his patented drop-shoulder rush down the wing, looping behind the goal to backhand a perfect pass to Skinner at the lip of the goal crease. The play happened so quickly that defenseman Mike Weaver never reacted.
But only a minute later, Weaver's hard shot off the back boards eluded Cam Ward, bouncing out front to a resourceful Darcy Hordichuk. The enforcer tucked it in for his first goal of the season.
Staal restored the two-goal lead with a skills clinic. Hauling the puck out of the defensive zone, he strode decisively through Florida's forecheck and wristed a shot off Dennis Wideman's stick as Samsonov cruised the slot. The goal leaves Staal one shy of 200 for his career.
Michael Frolik completed the scoring with the empty net behind him, flicking in a sharp-angle shot from the boards with 42 seconds left to bring the dollar hot dogs briefly back into the throats of the crowd.