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About Last Night: The Captain Leads the Way

Justin Williams provides plenty of leadership in his best game since returning to the Canes.

Carolina Hurricanes v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

As the season begins to wind to a close, every game, no matter the opponent, is crucial. Two points are available and, in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race, could be the difference when all is said and done. The Carolina Hurricanes seized two important points in South Florida on Thursday with their 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers, and with the win leaped into playoff position once again.

The Good - Captain Justin Williams

A battered, bruised and stitched captain Justin Williams was quite simply the difference in Thursday night’s game. The veteran buried two book-end goals, and his example of toughness after scoring the first goal off his face is certainly something that can have a galvanizing effect both in the room and on the ice.

Not only did Williams start the scoring before skating off to get a few stitches, but he continued to be dangerous in the offensive end as a part of what has become the most impressive Hurricanes line in recent years with Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter. That line continued their constant assault on the Florida net, and Williams paid it off again shortly after the Canes had tied the contest at 3-3 early in the third period. This line continues to transition from defense to offense better than any Canes line, and with the dynamic skill available throughout the line, scoring chances typically follow.

Williams played a role in every scoring tally for the Canes on Thursday, notching two goals, one assist, and providing the tough net-front work on Justin Faulk’s powerplay goal in the third period. If the Canes continue to receive this sort of leadership on the ice from their captain, the sky is the limit for this group. For one night at least, Williams allowed the Canes to escape with a road win after a massive falter in the second period, showing what true leadership is all about.

The Bad - Second Period Vacation

There has not been a specific trend as to when the Canes will take their foot off the gas in games, but when they do let off, boy does it go in the wrong direction fast. After Niederreiter added a second tally to bump the Carolina lead to 2-0 just less than five minutes into the second period, the Canes proceeded to completely collapse. The top two lines for the Panthers are chock-full of highly skilled players, making those groups and the Panthers power play units incredibly dangerous.

The Canes saw that on full display as the Panthers turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 advantage in less than five minutes of action. It started with Jayce Hawryluk winning a puck battle behind the Carolina net to create a turnover, then finding Evgenii Dadonov in front for the first Florida goal. A defensive zone turnover leading directly to a goal. From there, penalty trouble was the name of the game. A Lucas Wallmark holding call, followed by an Aho slash, resulted in two consecutive power play goals for the Panthers that vaulted them into the lead. After the display, Rod Brind’Amour elected to use his timeout to let the boys know exactly how he felt about the loss of focus and discipline.

The Canes were able to limp to the locker room just down by one, thanks in large part to a few top-end saves from Petr Mrazek in net. But in the bigger picture, this Hurricanes team is not talented enough to drift away for large portions of a period and expect to be successful.

The Beautiful - Canes Strike Back

After what was surely an undressing during the second intermission, the Canes emerged for the third period with a short carryover of a power play, trailing 3-2. Despite being 0-4 on the man advantage to that point, the Canes had created several dangerous chances. Faulk wasted no time providing the equalizer, as he snapped one glove side past James Reimer.

Williams provided the net-front presence that has lacked at times on the power play, but has been greatly improved with the addition of Niederreiter to the unit (minus the horrendous five-on-three advantage later in the third period on Thursday).

Less than two minutes later, with the Canes back on the man advantage, Williams finished off his spectacular evening offensively, providing the winning marker as the Canes entered the zone with speed.

After regaining the lead, the unsung performance of Mrazek shined through. His competitiveness in net kept the Canes behind by just a goal, and that same battle allowed the Canes’ tenuous one-goal lead to stand up throughout the third.

Moral of the Story

The Hurricanes know they have to be better. They have to be more consistent from shift to shift, period to period in order to maintain their rhythm and control of games that they get there hands on. But winning in the NHL is often times about finding a way to earn two points, even when you don’t have your best game on a given night. The Canes appear to be learning how to do that, which has been something they have struggled with mightily over the past few seasons as they try to bust through as a playoff contender.

The formula isn’t just one thing that has made for this change. It is an amalgamation of a number of factors. True leadership from a captain that has been lacking, dependable play in net, continued growth from the young and dynamic core, and the acquisition of gritty performers like Niederreiter and Ferland who have a nose for the puck. All of these factors, and more, have played a role in Carolina appearing to have turned the corner around Christmas. Now they must keep it up over the final 21 games if they hope to make the playoffs.

PS: The mentors seemed to enjoy it!