Hurricanes top Panthers 3-1 for fourth straight win

calexander@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2012 

— The game came to an end with Eric Staal just missing a hat trick, with the Carolina Hurricanes finishing off a 3-1 victory Wednesday over the Florida Panthers.

It also ended with both teams bunched together at center ice, the players facing off, heated, as if ready to rumble into the night.

Canes defenseman Bryan Allen, who once played for the Panthers, and Florida defenseman Ed Jovanovski touched off the confrontation. Within seconds, everyone was on the ice, snarling, displaying the kind of give-no-quarter intensity both teams will need in the final games of the regular season.

Allen said he saw the Panthers' Kris Versteeg get in a late hit on Staal, who put the puck into an empty net from long distance but a second after the game ended. Allen went after Versteeg but wound up tangling with Jovanovski.

"Versteeg two-handed (Staal). It was cheap play against our star player and you can't let that happen," Allen said. "A pretty gutless play, I thought."

And the 40-man faceoff?

"Obviously for them and for us it was a pretty emotional game," Allen said. "There's a lot on the line and nobody wants to lose."

The Hurricanes (30-29-15) had won three straight games and the Panthers five, Florida's longest winning streak in four years. While the Panthers (36-24-13) have a five-point lead in the NHL's Southeast Division, the Canes need every win they can muster in a last-gasp effort to claw into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"Our guys are battling, not going away," Canes coach Kirk Muller said.

With 75 points, Carolina is five points behind the eighth-place Washington Capitals -- and out of playoff position -- in the Eastern Conference with eight games remaining. That they had not beaten the Panthers in four games this season also added to the urgency of Wednesday's game.

Staal scored 46 seconds into the game and added a third-period power-play goal. Continuing his late-season surge, the Canes captain followed up a two-goal game Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets with another and has 44 points in the past 35 games.

The Hurricanes also got an immediate boost from defenseman Joni Pitkanen. Sidelined the past 44 games as he recovered from a concussion and knee surgery, Pitkanen was activated off injured reserve Wednesday morning, rejoined the lineup and had a goal and assist.

"I don't remember when I was last this nervous before a game," Pitkanen said. "The first period the game was so fast. The longer the game, I started feeling more comfortable."

Pitkanen's goal came almost 11 minutes into the second period, pushing the Canes ahead 2-0. Tuomo Ruutu dropped a pass to Pitkanen near the left circle and Pitkanen ripped a shot past goalie Jose Theodore, who had beaten the Canes four times this season.

"A really strong game for his first game back," Muller said. "He made us a better team."

Tomas Fleischmann scored for Florida about two minutes after Pitkanen, but that was the only shot that got past Canes goalie Cam Ward, who had 30 saves in earning his 27th win.

Jeff Skinner was back in the Canes' lineup after being suspended two games. Active in the Panthers' zone much of the game, the forward forced a holding penalty in the third period, and Staal blasted a shot past Theodore off a rebound for the power-play goal.

The Panthers, playing the night after a 2-1 road win in Philadelphia, had plenty of fight. But so did the Canes, who now go back on the road for three games beginning Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"It feels good right now," Staal said. "But we've got to keep it going, because that's all we can do."

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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