The first and second-place teams in the Central Division went head-to-head at PNC Arena on Thursday night.
With a win, the Carolina Hurricanes could take over first place in the division with games in hand on both the visiting Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who went to Columbus and captured an important pair of points against the Blue Jackets. They did just that with an impressive 3-0 victory.
With the first-place spot in the division on the line, the Hurricanes turned to Alex Nedeljkovic in net, and the rookie was locked in early on. He was aggressive with his stick in the crease, breaking up a number of passes and scoring opportunities in front.
One of his biggest challenges of the opening frame came during a failed Canes power play when the Cats generated the sequence’s best scoring chance on an odd-man rush. Nedeljkovic was forced to spring across and stop a centering feed from ending up in the back of the net.
His play early, coupled with a strong overall game from the Hurricanes, kept the game scoreless into the second half of the period.
Carolina opened the scoring at 14:31 of the opening frame, redeeming themselves with a quick-strike, power-play goal off a great centering feed from Vincent Trocheck to Sebastian Aho. Aho’s tally was his 300th NHL point and it gave the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead.
Vincent Trocheck doesn't just *score* goals against the Panthers. He sets them up too.— Canes Country (@CanesCountry) April 8, 2021
Sebastian Aho's goal is his 300th NHL point and it gives the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead over the Panthers. pic.twitter.com/Eq1Vp2wzdP
The Hurricanes knocked on the door again shortly after Aho’s opener, but Chris Driedger helped keep the Canes’ lead at just a goal heading into the first intermission.
That didn’t stick for long in the second period, though, as the Panthers’ national nightmare continued.
Trocheck sent a fairly harmless shot from the boards on the rush, but since it was Trocheck shooting the puck and it was a Panthers goalie in net, the puck bounced off of Driedger’s shoulder, deflected high into the air, came down, and bounced off of his back and into the net as a number of players from both teams attempted to whack at it.
None of them hit it, though, and the goal counted.
The story through two periods was the special teams play and how dominant Carolina was in that regard. While their first power play was dismal, they followed up with a pair of strong power plays, one ending with a goal in the first period. More notably, though, the Hurricanes made easy work of Florida’s power play, giving up almost nothing on three penalties through the first 40 minutes.
That narrative carried over into the third period when Aho took an early hooking penalty that set the table for a big opportunity for the Panthers to get back into the game. Carolina bent a bit more on its fourth kill, but the team still didn’t break as they killed nearly a minute and a half of the penalty before Patric Hornqvist got called for grabbing Brett Pesce’s stick and negated the rest of the man-power advantage.
Hornqvist really wanted to see Pesce’s stick, so after he got out of the box, he met back up with Pesce and they both got whistled for slashing. The offsetting minor penalties created a two-minute four-on-four sequence, but nothing in the way of offense came from it.
The third period stayed chippy as the Panthers got more and more frustrated and the Hurricanes refused to give up much of any room in the neutral zone and their own defensive zone.
At 12:17 of the period, Mason Marchment instigated a shoving match with Sebastian Aho and both players got whistled for roughing.
Things mellowed out a little bit down the stretch, and Martin Necas’ empty-net goal put a cherry atop the Hurricanes huge shutout of the Panthers.
Nedeljkovic stopped 24 shots in his third clean sheet of the campaign as the Hurricanes did a marvelous job of shutting down the Panthers almost all night and in all three zones. The home team put on a clinic and they more than earned the two big points in the standings.
Speaking of such, the win not only propelled the Canes to first in the Central Division, it put them in first place in the NHL in wins, points and points percentage.
They’ll look to build on that when they host the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night.