RALEIGH — Cory Stillman may have been the least surprised person in the building Tuesday after the Carolina Hurricanes struggled to beat the Florida Panthers.
The Hurricanes held on to win 2-1 at RBC Center, leaning heavily on goaltender Cam Ward to pull out the victory.
It was tough. It was a grind. The Panthers, despite playing with a recast lineup, were patient. They unloaded 42 shots at Ward, making the Hurricanes squirm.
In other words, it was the kind of game Stillman played in many times for Florida, this season and in others, before being traded from the Panthers to the Canes on Thursday.
"They work every night," Stillman said. "I think they've played 37, 38 one-goal games. They're in the game every night and the longer you leave them hanging the better they get."
But the Canes (30-25-9) did win. They did stay in eighth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres.
Stillman had an early first-period goal and assisted on Eric Staal's power-play score late in the first that was the difference. Stillman was named the game's first star, but knew better.
Ward, on his 27th birthday, had the 41 saves. He faced 18 shots in the final period and turned back every one, including a shot in front by Niclas Bergfors in the final two minutes of regulation that would have tied the score.
"He easily should have been the first star, when you see that many shots," Stillman said. "The best thing about him is he made everything routine. He made some big, big saves for us and held us in the game. Tonight he won us a hockey game."
Much of the pregame attention was on Stillman and defenseman Bryan Allen, who came to the Canes just before Monday's NHL trade deadline from the Panthers (26-30-7). Allen was traded for veteran winger Sergei Samsonov, who simply switched sweaters, and locker rooms at the RBC Center.
Then there was Staal, who missed Saturday's game in Montreal with an upper-body injury. Many were curious to see if the Canes captain was fully recovered from the big lick to the neck and head he took Friday from Pittsburgh's Matt Niskanen.
"It took a little bit to get the legs into it early," said Staal, who scored his 28th goal of the season. "But for the most part, I felt pretty good."
So did Ward, who was making his 23rd consecutive start. He got a few breaks the Panthers' Michal Repik twice missed an open net in the first but allowed only a second-period goal to Stephen Weiss and was sharp when the Canes were loose in their defensive zone.
"Those teams are difficult to play against in the sense they don't have a lot to lose," Ward said. "They've always been known to be a hard-working team and they had quite a few changes in their lineup (and) you knew when guys get opportunities to play they're working for job, if not for the stretch run here but for next year, too.
"It wasn't the prettiest game by any means on our part, but we'll certainly take the two points."
Stillman, in his third game with the Canes, scored his second goal after Erik Cole carried the puck the zone and centered a pass before crashing into the end boards. Stillman slipped inside defenseman Jason Garrison to bang the puck past goalie Scott Clemmensen at 5:25.
After Chad LaRose drew a holding penalty late in the first, Stillman made a perfectly executed slap pass to Staal at the doorstep for a 2-0 lead at 14:55 of the second.
Canes coach Paul Maurice didn't care to say much about the game other than it was a win and the Canes finished 4-1-1 against the Panthers in the season series.
"It was a tight game, and sloppy and unusual, but the good guys won," he said.
Asked about his team's focus, Maurice replied, "I thought our focus was fairly consistent."
Consistently good or not-so-good? A wry smile.
"We won," Maurice said. "Our first line scored a goal, their first line scored a goal, we were one better than they were on the power play, our captain scored the game-winner and our goaltender was good, and we beat an NHL team."
The Canes' next game: Buffalo, on Thursday at the RBC Center. That does have Maurice's attention.
"I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time dissecting what happened here," Maurice said. "That was very difficult team and game for our team to play, and we played it and we won."
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