The Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes traded compliments in the lead-up to their latest matchup, and crunching hits in the first period. They traded goals and highlight-worthy plays.
The Panthers and Hurricanes, even if they wouldn’t explicitly say it, knew their meeting Wednesday in North Carolina had a chance to be a postseason preview — perhaps even an early look at the Eastern Conference finals — and they put on a playoff-type show. At the end of three back-and-forth periods, Florida scored in the final minute of regulation to force overtime and Aaron Ekblad delivered the game-winner for a 3-2 win in the first minute of the extra session.
At PNC Arena, the league’s highest-scoring offense won out against the NHL’s stingiest defense.
Forward Sam Reinhart scored with 48.3 seconds left and an empty net behind him after multiple length-of-the-ice empty-net shots by Carolina just went wide of the goal. Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar launched a shot from the point with about 50 seconds to go and the rebound scooted out to Reinhart, who flung in the game-tying goal.
Less than a minute later, the Panthers and Hurricanes went to overtime, and Ekblad scored on Florida’s first chance with 4:44 left in the five-minute period.
Florida finished with a 31-18 edge in shots on goal and a 21-18 edge in scoring chances in its first game of the second half of the season. The Hurricanes shut out the Panthers on five power plays and still held them beneath their average for shots on goal.
They tried their best to make it a defensive struggle and succeeded for most of regulation. In all of 1:05, Florida flipped the script with one of the rapid-fire scoring explosions it’s so good at putting together.
Still, it was a meeting fitting the “juggernaut” status both teams spent the last few weeks bestowing upon the other.
Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour called the Panthers “the juggernaut team” in the NHL this season while he was out in Las Vegas coaching in the 2022 NHL All-Star Game last weekend. On Wednesday, coach Andrew Brunette responded to Brind’Amour’s praise by saying, “We feel the same about them.”
A year ago, Florida and Carolina were the first two victims on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup and now “there’s a competition to be the next Tampa,” Brunette said.
“We’re vying,” he said, “to be the next team.”
The Panthers went into the All-Star break with the most points in the Eastern Conference and went into Wednesday with the best points percentage after the Hurricanes dropped three of four to start their second half. Now Florida is back alone atop the East, both in total points and points percentage.
The Hurricanes scored first in the final minute of the first period when Ekblad’s stick broke to give Carolina a rush in the other direction and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky gave up a soft goal on a no-angle shot by Hurricanes winger Teuvo Teravainen.
In the second period, the Panthers answered on a spectacular goal by star center Aleksander Barkov, who got out on a 1-on-1 break, tapped the puck behind his own back and finished with a backhanded shot to even the score at 1-1 with 6:51 remaining.
With 16:47 left in the third period, Hurricanes defenseman Tony DeAngelo shot from the left point, and wound up with a goal when the puck bounced off defenseman Gustav Forsling and past Bobrovsky.
In between the high-intensity low-scoring action, there were 22 penalty minutes, a handful of testy scuffles and one of the best saves of the season made when defenseman Lucas Carlsson dove in front of an empty net to bail out Bobrovsky with the handle of his stick in the second period.
The Panthers delivered the most skillful moments with Barkov’s goal and Carlsson’s save, and wore away at Carolina, outshooting the Hurricanes, 11-6, in the second and 11-2 in the third.
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