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The Florida Panthers were a determined, seemingly combative bunch as they skated out Thursday to play the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Panthers’ Ryan Lomberg had an early fight with Cedric Paquette. Aleksander Barkov gave the Panthers an early lead.
But the Canes are a patient, poised team. Little fazes them, Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour has said more than once this season.
Trailing after the first period, the Canes surged in the second, scoring three times — at even strength, on the power play and shorthanded. They held strong in the third behind goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to win 4-2 as the Canes took a two-point lead over Florida at the top of the Central Division.
Nino Niederreiter, continuing to put together a terrific season, gave the Canes a 2-1 lead in the second with a power-play goal, powering in a rebound. Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas then teamed up shorthanded, Necas making a steal and then Aho finishing off a two-on-none rush for his 19th and a 3-1 lead.
Barkov’s second goal of the game, on a 5-on-3 power play, pulled Florida within 3-2 with 7:58 left in regulation. But Aho’s second goal, an empty-netter in the final minute sealed the win.
The Canes (31-10-5) lost another player. Jordan Martinook, who scored Carolina’s first goal Thursday, suffered a lower-body injury after a clean hit from Radko Gudas in the second period and did not return.
Defenseman Brady Skjei suffered a concussion Tuesday in the game against Tampa Bay and will be sidelined indefinitely. With Skjei out and Martinook leaving the game, the Canes were without two key penalty killers Thursday.
But the Canes had most of the answers Thursday against the Panthers’ power plays. They killed off five straight penalties and got Aho’s shorthanded score before Barkov scored on the 5-on-3 in the third, then killed off their seventh penalty.
The Canes later killed off a Staal delay-of-game penalty and then a hooking penalty against Vincent Trocheck as the Panthers (30-13-5) finished 1-9 on the power play.
Second period: Canes surge ahead
The Canes needed 14 seconds in the second period to tie the score on a Jordan Martinook goal, took the lead on Nino Niederreiter’s power-play score and added to it as Sebastian Aho scored shorthanded.
Martinook, open in the slot, took a pass from Jordan Staal from behind the net and beat Sergei Bobrovsky for his fourth goal of the season and his second in two games.
Niederreiter’s 17th of the season came off a rebound on a power play at 11:09 of the second. Brett Pesce, who had the shot, picked up his 19th assist of the season and Martin Necas his 24th.
Niederreiter, who had a goal and assist Tuesday against Tampa Bay, picked up his 30th point of the season. That’s topped his total of 29 points last season in 67 games.
Aho scored at 18:08 after Necas made a steal on the penalty kill near the blue line. Aho and Necas played a little two-man game with the puck before Aho knocked it in for his 19th of the season and a 3-1 lead.
One big concern for the Canes: Martinook left the game after taking a hip check from Radko Gudas along the boards with 4:37 left in the period. Martinook was in pain and could not put weight on his right leg as he left the ice.
First period: one goal, one fight
The game was barely six minutes old and there already had been a goal scored and a fight held as the Panthers took a 1-0 lead after the first period.
Aleksander Barkov of the Panthers scored the goal, his 20th of the season. Barkov scored after a scramble in front of the Canes net and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, who stopped a couple of shots before the score.
The Barkov goal, at 6:22 of the first, came a little more than a minute after the Panthers’ Ryan Lomberg and the Canes’ Cedric Paquette dropped the gloves and started throwing hands.
There were five power plays in a tightly called first period, three for the Panthers, but all five penalties were killed off. The Canes’ best scoring chance in the period came shorthanded when Sebastian Aho got off a shot from the slot that forced Sergei Bobrovsky into a tough save.
The fighting major for Paquette was the Canes’ third in the past three games. The last time the Canes had three in a row was in April 2013, when they had fighting majors in four straight games.
Big game or just one of 56 games?
It looks big. The Hurricanes and Panthers are tied at the top of the Central Division with 65 points, three points ahead of that team that won the Stanley Cup last season, Tampa Bay. The Canes are first, having played two fewer games than Florida and with a better winning percentage (.722).
But after the game Thursday at the BB&T Center, the winner will be first and the loser in second in the Central. And they’ll play it again Saturday to finish out their eight-game regular-season series.
The Panthers were 35-26-8 last season when COVID-19 put a halt to the NHL season. In the league’s return to play postseason, Florida lost its best-of-five qualifier to the New York Islanders in four games.
But the Panthers are 30-12-5 this season, making a strong early push by going 11-2-2 in their first 15 games.
“I think Florida’s just realizing the potential they’ve had here for a while, but it’s all coming together now,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Thursday.
Like the Canes, the Panthers believe they have the kind of team — even with top defenseman Aaron Ekblad out with an injury — to make a deep playoff run.
“They’re a good team,” Canes captain Jordan Staal said after Thursday’s morning skate. “They’re always a threat to score goals. They’re very quick at moving the puck off turnovers and in their D zone. They’re always keeping you on your toes and you’ve always got to be aware of where everyone is on the ice.”
The Panthers bring a three-game winning streak into the game and have won seven straight at home. They swept a two-game set against Columbus, winning 4-2 and 5-1, and have scored 14 goals in the past three games.
Alex Nedeljkovic will be the starting goalie for the Canes and will face the Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky. The Canes’ website reported Thursday that goalie Petr Mrazek was set to play Thursday but is dealing with some lower-body issues.
Defenseman Joakim Ryan will make his Hurricanes debut Thursday with Brady Skjei in the concussion protocol. Ryan will be paired with Jani Hakanpaa.
Forward Teuvo Teravainen participated in the morning skate but was ruled out of Thursday’s game by Brind’Amour. Teravainen has not played a game since early March because of concussion symptoms.