RALEIGH — If Kirk Muller was disappointed, and he had every right to be on such a special night, he masked it well.
Muller's first game as the Carolina Hurricanes' new coach, as an NHL head coach, ended Tuesday with a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. It was a game like so many this season for the Canes, with a few lapses proving costly and power plays coming up empty and players walking about with angry eyes and pained looks in the locker room after it.
But not Muller. While it hurt to lose, to have the Panthers' Shawn Matthias score twice in the third period, Muller preferred to talk about the good things he had seen from his team. He even managed a smile or two in his postgame comments.
"Honestly, I was really pleased," Muller said. "We've got a lot of young guys and it has been an emotional couple of days for them. Some of them have never gone through it before.
"We asked them (Tuesday) morning to bring a good, competitive part of (their) game tonight. I think they did their part and what we asked of them -- come and work hard, play for each other. We didn't get the bounce but they played hard."
The Panthers, a rebuilt team that leads the Southeast Division under first-year coach Kevin Dineen, got the bounce they needed in the final four minutes of the third. Canes defenseman Tomas Kaberle tried to hard-rim the puck out of the zone, but Florida forward Tomas Kopecky stopped it along the boards inside the blue line and found Matthias lurking to the left of Canes goalie Cam Ward.
Matthias, unchecked by Kaberle, banked the puck off Ward at the post and into the net. The Panthers (13-7-4) had a 2-1 lead with 3:19 left in regulation, and Matthias added an empty-netter in the final minute to seal the victory and spoil Muller's debut.
"We were excited to come to the rink tonight and I thought for the most part we played a pretty solid game," Ward said. "They got a fluky bounce on that second (goal) and that's just the way it is."
The Hurricanes (8-14-4) didn't get a lot of favorable bounces this season under coach Paul Maurice, who was fired Monday. The loss to the Panthers was Carolina's fourth straight and the 11th in the past 14 games, ending a 4-10-1 November.
For the 13,065 fans, parts of the game looked familiar. Jeff Skinner scored the Canes' only goal, keeping the puck alive in the offensive zone, taking a nice pass from Eric Staal and powering the puck past Panthers goalie Jose Theodore for his 10th of the season.
But the Hurricanes, 29th in the NHL on the power play, were 0-for-5 with a man advantage. The Panthers, in turn, needed just 13 seconds to score on their first power play as Tomas Fleischmann ripped a shot from the top of the left circle for a 1-0 lead at 10:45 of the second period.
"Five on five I thought we were skating a lot better than they were," Staal said. "When you get those power plays you want to make sure you make them pay and we didn't."
Ward stopped the Panthers' Jack Skille on a penalty shot with 12:09 left in the third to keep it a 1-1 game. But the Canes, who allowed two Florida shots in the first and outshot the Panthers 27-21, couldn't produce the big goal Theodore stopping a Brandon Sutter tip in front with less than six minutes left -- to take the lead.
"They're a tough team to play against," Ward said. "They're not your typical Florida Panthers. They've got some skill up front now and have some solid (defense).
"It was a tight game and could have gone either way and I thought we deserved a better fate. It hasn't been a whole lot of fun around here but you've got to do your best to remain positive."
Muller, in a dark suit and red tie, did not come out of the locker room until after the national anthem was sung. He had assistant coaches Dave Lewis and Rod Brind'Amour behind the bench, moving assistant Tom Barrasso upstairs.
Muller decided to make defenseman Jamie McBain a healthy scratch. Forward Andreas Nodl, claimed on waivers Tuesday from the Philadelphia Flyers, played on the fourth line as the Canes reassigned Brett Sutter to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.
"A lot of things have happened quickly but I enjoyed it," Muller said. "It was a great atmosphere here. It's not the outcome we wanted, so we've just got to roll our sleeves up, we've got to really get down to all the little details of the game.
"We can't afford to make a lot of mistakes. That's reality."