The Carolina Hurricanes had been scoring goals in bunches, especially Jeff Skinner, and the Florida Panthers had done the same the past couple of games.
Naturally, the two teams got together Friday at PNC Arena and the first goal didn’t come until the third period and was scored by a 38-year-old defenseman whose last goal came against the Hurricanes in April, last season.
Willie Mitchell scored the winning goal at 4:09 of the third and Reilly Smith had a late empty-netter as the Panthers won 2-0 as goalie Roberto Luongo earned his 70th career shutout.
This one was a tight-checking, 60-minute grind with scoring chances hard to generate. The Panthers, a team that has thrived on the road this season, finished off a successful back-to-back set a day after a 5-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils.
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The Canes’ Andrej Nestrasil hit the post in the first period and Eric Staal was a few inches wide of the post on a tip in the third after Luongo had his paddle knocked out of his hands. Skinner, after scoring two hat tricks in the past three games, again was a threat, once leaving defenseman Dylan Olsen flat-footed with a spinning move, and others had some near-misses.
But in the end, that’s all they were — near-misses. Luongo had 24 saves for the Panthers (17-12-4), who have won eight of the last 10 on the road and now have a five-game winning streak over Carolina.
“It was a tight game and I don’t think we gave up much,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “It was tough to create. We had a tough time getting through the neutral zone and getting on the forecheck with some pressure."
The Canes (12-15-5) had goalie Cam Ward in net after Eddie Lack started the final three games of a four-game road trip that ended Tuesday with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Mitchell was unchecked in scoring on a one-timer from the slot and Ward, who lasted one period in his last start, was solid enough the rest of the game.
Mitchell, the Panthers’ captain, scored after the oldest player on the ice, 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, kept Eric Staal from getting the puck out of the Carolina zone. Jonathan Huberdeau later spun off the wall and around Eric Staal, finding Mitchell alone in the slot as Canes forward Kris Versteeg was late in back-checking.
“Both teams checked well and they capitalized on a little turnover and D-zone breakdown,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “You’ve got to know the importance of each and every shift. Every play, every shift matters.
“That’s basically what happened. We had the puck along the wall and didn’t quite get it out and then we knew their (defensemen) were in-zone active. They activated Willie Mitchell backside and to the front of the net and caused enough confusion that he got open.”
One lapse was enough to decide it. The Canes pulled Ward with more than two minutes to play for a sixth attacker but the Panthers got sticks on pucks and clamped down in front of Luongo until Smith scored with 21 seconds to play.
In a game where possessions mattered, the Panthers were dominant in the faceoff circle. Florida was 38-25 on draws and won four of six on the Canes’ two power plays.
Carolina had scored power-play goals in each of the past six games after sputtering most of the season. Eric Staal came close to tying the score about seven minutes into the third on the tip that was just wide.
“One breakdown cost us,” Staal said. “That was the difference. Both goalies were good. There wasn’t a lot of room.”