RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes have been leading the NHL's Southeast Division this season without beating a divisional team.
The Canes knew that had to change, and they did something about it Saturday.
The Hurricanes ripped the Florida Panthers 6-2 in an increasingly physical game at PNC Arena that was the first of a home-and-home set. Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal each scored twice and Riley Nash picked up his first NHL goal and had two assists as Carolina took a two-point lead in the division.
"Our guys were ready to play and knew the importance of tonight's game," Canes coach Kirk Muller said. "I liked our focus. We came out with good intensity and carried it through."
Jiri Tlusty, who has been on a tear, scored his 10th goal of the season and Alexander Semin had three assists for the Hurricanes (11-8-1), who were 0-5-0 against Southeast Division teams this season. They also were facing a team that was making a habit of frustrating and beating them.
The Panthers (6-10-5) won the division last year, topping the Canes five times. They then slapped Carolina 5-1 in this year's season-opener in Sunrise, Fla.
"Realistically, if you want to be up top in your division you have to beat the teams in your division," Muller said. "They've played well against us. I think our guys knew it, that this is a big weekend, and it showed in their play.
The Panthers have dealt with a number of injuries this season and suffered a big one early in the first period. Starting goalie Jose Theodore was helped off the ice with an apparent leg injury, thrusting Scott Clemmensen into the game.
The Canes have had some slow-starting first periods this season, but not Saturday against Clemmensen. Jokinen scored twice and Tlusty added the third in a span of three minutes and five seconds, as the Canes led the Panthers 3-1 -- only the second time this season the Canes have led after the opening period.
"We wanted to come out strong," Jokinen said. "When you take the lead it's easier to play and the other team has to take some risks."
The Panthers got a goal from Shawn Matthias late in the first period and then Filip Kuba late in the second, but Nash and Staal had scored for the Canes to push Carolina ahead 5-1 in the second before Kuba's goal. Staal picked up his 12th goal of the season in the third and has four goals in the past four games.
Canes goalie Cam Ward, who was pulled after the first period in the season opener, had 22 saves Saturday in earning his eighth win.
The only downside for the Hurricanes was again losing defenseman Joni Pitkanen to a lower-body injury. Pitkanen, who had missed the past seven games, left after the first period and did not return, and Muller was not sure if Pitkanen would make the trip to Florida.
Nash, who began the season with the Charlotte Checkers, had the primary assists on both of Jokinen's goals. The third-line center also rang the post with a shot early in the second.
But Nash got his first NHL goal off a nice two-on-one pass from Patrick Dwyer, tumbling into the boards after the score.
"I was hoping the first one went in because it was pretty nice," Nash said, smiling. "I was just trying to shoot the puck and find guys who were open."
Clemmensen allowed the three Canes goals in the first on three consecutive shots.
Jokinen had scored two goals in the first 19 games while often centering the third line. But he made the most of his opportunities playing the wing on Nash's wing.
Staal scored his first of the game off a neat feed from Semin, collecting the puck in front of the crease to Clemmensen's left, then quickly going to his forehand to beat the goalie.
Defenseman Filip Kuba scored for the Panthers late in the second to make it a 5-2 game. In addition to Theodore, Florida also lost defensemen Dmitry Kulikov to an injury in the game.
The Panthers will recall goalie Jacob Markstrom from San Antonio (AHL).
Late in the second period, Canes defenseman Justin Faulk put a big hit on Florida's Stephen Weiss behind the Panthers net. The two dropped the gloves early in the third -- Faulk getting the upper hand and Weiss receiving a game misconduct.
But for Faulk, winning the game was more important than winning a fight.
"It's huge getting those two points," he said. "It was nice to get our first division win."
And the game Sunday in Sunrise?
"I have a feeling they'll come out pretty hungry and want to set the tone like we did tonight," Faulk said.