Fifteen times this year, including Thursday night, the Carolina Hurricanes have given up the first goal of the game. For the seventh time, that fact hasn't stopped the Canes from pulling out a victory.
Behind a stellar eight-point performance from the Canes' first line and 26 saves from Cam Ward, the Canes (10-8-1) defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins (13-8-0) 4-1 at PNC Arena to remain in the driver's seat in the Southeast Division with 21 points.
Jiri Tlusty, who accounted for three points in his second two-goal game in less than a week, said it was a team effort. "Everyone stuck with the game plan. If we can do that every single night, we have a chance to win a lot of hockey games."
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was the story in the first period, with a series of point-blank saves, none better than denying Drayson Bowman halfway through the period after Bowman undressed a Penguins defenseman while entering the Pittsburgh zone. The Penguins paid Fleury back for his effort with Chris Kunitz's 9th at 13:14, a perfect one-timer off a Sidney Crosby feed that Ward had no chance to stop.
Despite being down by a goal, the Canes were offensively dangerous for most of the period, and they had the look of a team that, once they got one past Fleury, would be in good shape.
Eric Staal started that process with :25 left in the first period, a perfect tip of an Alexander Semin point shot that looked to be intentionally missing the net. Instead of waiting for the puck to bounce off the end boards, though, Staal tipped it home past Fleury for his team-leading tenth of the season to send the teams to the locker room deadlocked at 1.
After killing off a Jay Harrison tripping penalty that came out of a scrum to end the first period, the Canes kept the momentum going. Tlusty fired home his 8th at 4:03 off a broken play, then just under two minutes later Jeff Skinner celebrated his return from a concussion that kept him out of five games in grand style, making it 3-1 at 5:49 off a Patrick Dwyer feed.
The Canes kept the pressure on the Pittsburgh defense, firing 12 shots in the second period to complement their 13 in the first. The last of those shots came off the stick of Jiri Tlusty at 19:49, and put the Canes up 4-1 headed into the locker room for the second intermission. Tlusty's second of the period was set up by Semin, his second dish of the night and this one a wraparound behind the net that led to a pass to an untouched Tlusty just outside the crease.
In the third, Fleury got lucky two separate times when he lost the puck behind the net, once on a power play when Eric Staal sent a backhand wide of the empty cage and again a few minutes later when Skinner was whistled for tripping while trying to pry the puck loose from the Penguins' goaltender, who made 25 saves on the night.
A late Pittsburgh surge with the goaltender pulled led to a couple of good chances but no goals, and the Canes closed out the third period with no scoring from either side.
It was a great effort for the Canes, who showed what they're capable of doing when they have a healthy lineup.
"It was nice getting some healthy bodies back," said coach Kirk Muller. "Not only healthy, but they were fresh, rested guys who gave us a chance to go four lines and six D a little more. You could see the difference."
Ward appreciated the effort of his teammates in front of him. "We did a really good job of shutting down their top players. You could sense that they were getting a little bit frustrated. Credit to the guys for working really hard and shutting down the top power play in the East."
"Everyone came ready to play, all 20 guys," Muller said. "It was a big game for us."
- Brandon Sutter and Jordan Staal faced each other on the opening faceoff, to the surprise of few. Muller said he made a point to give Jordan the start against his former team, and though he didn't know for sure that the Pens would start Sutter it didn't surprise him at all.
- The Canes retired Flo Rida's "Low" from the active game-night music rotation in memory of Joyce Johnston, better known as "Dancin' Granny," a fixture in section 127 for many years who died Wednesday at age 85. A tribute to Dancin' Granny on the scoreboard in the first period earned a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.
- It was an unlikely team to improve the penalty kill against, but the Canes' play while down a man continues to improve. Since a 1-for-5 debacle on the PK against the Islanders on February 11, the Canes have been perfect on the kill in 5 of 8 games and are on a 26-for-29 hot streak in that stretch, including a 5-for-5 performance against the Penguins' conference-leading power play.
- Skinner's goal was his first since February 11, but it caps a great month where he was held off the scoresheet only twice in nine games played and put up more than a point per game, with three goals and seven assists.
- Winnipeg's win over New Jersey combined with Tampa Bay's loss to the Rangers leaves the Canes and Jets tied atop the Southeast Division with 21 points, the Canes holding the tiebreaker due to fewer games played.