Canes Take 2 From Panthers, Leap Into First Place 

Cary, NC — The winning 5-2 score of the Canes over the first-place Florida Panthers is no reflection on how the game went. This was a battle, or really, battles.

Game 1: Canes’ Late Surge Bests Florida Panthers, 5-2

It was a battle between 2 very good and determined teams. It was a respectable battle between 2 very good coaches who have everyone on their respective benches bought into their system with any player willing to do whatever asked.

And, it was also a battle between 2 highly respected leaders in both captains, Jordan Staal and Alexsander Barkov and a battle between 2 goalies, Petr Mrazek and Sergei Bobrovsky. And let’s not forget the constant battle between the skaters who were nonstop the entire game. 

Battle Of The Goalies- Mrazek and Bobrovsky

The Florida Panthers currently occupy the merry-go-round first place position that has either the Canes or defending Cup Champs, Tampa Bay Lightning taking the top spot on any given day.

Right now, first place is the weakest bragging right players care about. The Cats have played 2 more games than the Canes and have just 1 more point so the Canes are in a better position, theoretically, as divisional play is so difficult this year, any coach will say they’d rather have points than available games.

From the first drop of the puck, it wasn’t game on but rather let the battles begin. Against his former team that still has numerous friends, Vincent Trocheck won the first faceoff with linemates Jordan Martinook and Martin Necas doling out the first hits of the game. Noel Acciari had Florida’s first hit on Haydn Fleury who is all for a physical game.

The Canes aren’t really built for a physical game but never shy away from it. In the contest, the Canes had 36 hits while the bigger Cats dished out 41 with no hit bordering on dirty or illegal, just clean, knock ‘em off the puck, introduce ‘em to the boards, solid hits.

Despite all the good friends on the Panthers, Troch led all players with, what might be a career-high, 8 hits. Troch even got in a mini skirmish with Patric Hornqvist late in the game but you could almost see a smile in their eyes as they were going at it. The Panthers lit the lamp first midway in the period. The Cats carried the puck out of their zone after a turnover by the Canes, going methodically through the neutral zone to allow a 3 man rush.

MacKenzie Weegar took a shot from the left circle that Mrazek came out of the crease to make a pad save. Unable to control the rebound, Barkov charged the puck and made a sweet backhand shot that went in off the bottom side of the crossbar. If anyone understands the Czech language, I’m sure Mrazek’s comment was something along the ‘darn’ line as he was really upset over that goal.

Troch also drew the first Cats penalty with a hard battle along the boards when Frank Vatrano got his stick tangled with the glass as it was wrapped around Trocheck’s neck sending Troch down to the ice in serious discomfort that Vatrano was the first to see if he was OK. The Canes powerplay looked good but on this man advantage didn’t get many shots on net. 

Trocheck Makes it 5 For 5

It’s hard to say the second period was the most exciting period the Canes were a part of this season, especially after seeing the third, as it was great hockey.

Two fun teams going at it with every shift giving it their all. Rod Brind’Amour might have mentioned getting more shots on net as the Canes only had 7 in the first. That increased to a game-high 17 in the second with many Grade A scoring chances. The Canes did an excellent job in the faceoff circle as once again, everyone won at least 50% of their individual draws with the overall team total at 58%. The Canes play a possession style of hockey and it all starts with winning the faceoff.

Trocheck got the Canes on the board late in the first while on a powerplay. Troch started the play in the far corner, rimming the puck to Dougie Hamilton on the right point. Dougie quickly passed over to Andrei Svechnikov on the left, passing down to Sebastian Aho in the lower half of the far circle to keep the Cats always turning. Fishy saw Troch and Staal in the crease area sending a hard pass that Troch redirected but Bobrovsky blocked with the pads.

Unable to kick the rebound away, Troch started digging at the puck touching it just so to have it trickle in the net for his 5th goal in 5 games against his former team. It took just 27 seconds later for the Panthers to answer. Mason Marchment brought the puck into the Canes zone in the middle of the ice.

Just as he was being checked he passed left to Carter Verhaeghe. Dougie Hamilton stretched to poke check the puck but Verhaeghe was able to get by then passed to Barkov open on the right who slammed a one-timer to put the Cats up again by 1. 

Staal Leads With 2, Hamilton, Fast Each Notch 1

You needed to fasten your seat belt to watch the third. With the Canes on the backend of a powerplay that started late in the second, they scored in exactly the way the coaches drew it up with all 5 skaters having a hand in it. After Troch won the faceoff, Hamilton made a cross-ice pass to Svech.

Svech passed back to Dougie touching it to Fishy along the far half-boards sending a hard slap shot that Bobrovsky sent to the backboards. Jordo got the rebound backhanded a pass along the boards to Fishy who pushed it to Troch in the dirty area. Troch had his back to the goal so he set a quick pass up to Hamilton on the right point.

Dougie took the puck to the high slot and seeing Jordo and Troch battling in front let go a slapper that hit Bobrovsky’s pads but had the velocity to continue to the back of the net and tie the game. Better teams respond and as they did in the second, the Panthers turned it up a notch right after that goal with 5 shots in the next minute but Raz was sharp. Very sharp and appeared to be standing on his head at times. Just as better teams respond, leaders lead.

A little under the nine-minute mark, Jordo picked up a loose puck in his end near the far boards, carried it cross-ice through the neutral zone down into the Cats end, then when he got to the faceoff dot, used his defender as a partial screen blasting a shot aimed for the 5-hole that Bobrovsky thought he had but it trickled through his pads.

Both Jordan Martinook and Radko Gudas, a good friend of fellow Czech Mrazek, were battling for the puck when Gudas’ skate knocked the puck across the goal line for the first Canes lead. Late in the period, Joel Quenneville pulled his goalie for the extra skater. Warren Foegele won a battle for the puck in front of his bench making a nifty backhand through the legs pass to Jordo.

Staal out-muscled two defenders in the neutral zone, went across the ice and with a defender all over his back and another one going to the front of the net, pulled his arms down like a front-end loader sending a puck into the net with a purpose. With 100 seconds left in the game, after the Cats got possession after the faceoff Quenneville once again pulled the goalie.

Jaccob Slavin intercepted the puck at his own blue line flipping a lob to the Cats blue line. Svech won the battle for the puck, knocking it loose then bumping his man to the ice to allow Fishy to snare the puck.

Not having a shot, Fishy held the puck then saw Jesper Fast racing down Broadway all alone, flipped the puck over a defender’s stick that Quickie slammed to the middle of the net. Without that hit by Svech moments earlier, that goal doesn’t happen. In a battle, there is no quit. Solid game. Exciting game. A highly entertaining game which sets up the rematch on Thursday to be Battle #2. 

Game 2: Nedeljkovic Blanks Florida, Trocheck Sets Record

In the rematch 2 nights later, both teams knew it would be another grind. And a grind it was. It wasn’t the best game each has played but was a game that any mistake could be costly needing the goalies to perform the impossible or a weird bounce could spell disaster.

Not surprisingly, Rod Brind’Amour tapped Alex Nedeljkovic to be between the pipes. Petr Mrazek played the last 2 consecutive games and with all 3 goalies playing extremely well, at this point of the season, it’s highly doubtful Roddy would run a goalie down the stretch.

While James Reimer was the odd man out this game, adds to the speculation of options that VP & GM Don Waddell has before Monday’s trade deadline but unless it’s a super, hard-to-turn-down deal, there’s an excellent chance all 3 will be around on Tuesday. Ned played outstandingly, posting a 3-0 shutout that allowed the Canes to leapfrog over the Panthers into first place in the Central/ Discovery division.

Right now first place is for bragging rights, mostly by fans, but as the regular season winds down, first place plays an important part in who the opponent will be. Right now, the Canes and the Toronto Maple Leafs are tied for the NHL lead at 57 points, with the Canes having a game at hand, and the Canes do have a very good opportunity to win the President’s Trophy. 

Aho’s Powerplay Goal Keeps Canes #1

Even with Aaron Ekblad out with a serious leg injury, the Panthers still play a heavy game. Coach Joel Quenneville has his team playing on all cylinders even if a key player is missing. Their forechecking and hitting are as effective as Tampa Bay, who I think is the most physical team in the division. The Canes forechecking may be the best in the NHL as that appears to be their trademark along with solid defense.

The game started like a bartender shaking a Margarita. The Cats won the initial faceoff with Jordan Martinook doling out the first hit with the Cats getting off the first shot that Ned easily handled to allow the Canes to quickly exit their zone and start sending shots to Cats keeper Chris Driedger. Andrei Scechnikov got off the Canes first shot that Driedger made a blocker save with Jesper Fast and Sebastian Aho each knocking their men off the puck but the Canes were unable to keep the puck in the Cats end.

The Panthers started to turn up the dial for hitting as for a while it appeared that was their main concern over shots on net. The Canes Brady Skjei took the Canes first penalty by hooking Alexsander Barkov which isn’t necessarily a bad idea. The Canes special teams were the difference in the game and their PK unit was perfect going 4-for-4 on the kills.

The Canes’ first powerplay was a forgetful one but their second saw a complete turnaround. Quickie drew the penalty all on speed as he was hooked by Matt Kiersted. Just as Roddy drew it up in practice, all 5 skaters were involved with the eventual powerplay goal. Jordan Staal won the all-important faceoff with Svech grabbing the puck passing up to Dougie Hamilton on the left point.

Dougie started to skate towards the middle, eyed Fishy on the right point but quickly passed down to Troch along the goal line. Troch had 2 obvious options- pass to Jordo in the low slot, pass over to Svech inside the perimeter of the circle but instead threaded the needle of a pass cross-ice to Fishy who slammed a one-timer in for his 16th of the season and the crucial first goal with only 7 seconds spent on the penalty. 

Trocheck Makes It 6 For 6

The former Panther is on fire, scoring against them in all 6 games against them this season.

The Canes penalty kill unit was challenged early in the second when Skjei drew his second penalty of the game. He must have been an altar boy in his youth as the look on his face after the call was priceless “who, me? Can’t be as I was cleaning the altar.”

Skjei must have said a few Hail Marys in the sin bin as shortly after getting back on the ice he made a great play to clear the puck from the Canes end. Martin Necas grabbed the puck in the neutral zone quickly going into the Cats zone. Keeping a handle on the puck Necas had an option to pass to Nino Niederreiter coming down the right but decided instead to pass to Brett Pesce who entered the Cats end with speed going right to the net.

Pesce realized the pass would handcuff him so he let the puck go between his legs that Troch picked up, went to the near boards, down to the corner and seeing Nino jostling for position flung the puck to the net which is always a good thing.

The puck hit Driedger on the number on his left shoulder bouncing up 6’ in the air with both Nino trying to wait until the puck came down for a legal swat and former Cane Eetu Luostarien attempting to paw the puck away, both missed with the puck hitting Driedger behind his right shoulder trickling into the net for Troch’s 6th goal in 6 games against his former team.

You could imagine the trash talk going on the ice after that, Troch had to say he planned the bank shot. The Cats weren’t in first place by some fluke, they are a very good and solid team. After that goal, the Cats turned up their play a few notches, but so did the Canes.

Ned was challenged on several shots and his glove was as fast as it’s been all season. He prides himself on his well above average stick handling and had to rely on that several times and really is a plus for the Canes. He has scored a goal in both the EHL and AHL and someday he will add the NHL to that list but it was his glove this game that really stood out.

Necas Seals It, Nedeljkovic Earns 3rd Shutout

The third had everyone wearing skates playing an important part: players and officials. Fishy drew a penalty in the first minute that didn’t please him but it was a penalty. While Fishy is sneaky good on the P! Mostly because of the length of his stick, even without him the PK units were great.

The fact is, on 4 pure powerplays, the Cats only managed 2 shots on net. That’s impressive defense. Patric Hornqvist and Pesce were going at it down low and with the puck going by, Pesch couldn’t get in position because there was an extra hand on his stick. With Hornqvist off for holding the stick, the Canes had a chance to break the game wide open but couldn’t convert on the man advantage.

Shortly after the penalty, Hornqvist went right back at Pesch with each sent off for cooling after slashing each other in the shins. Later in the period Fishy and Mason Marchment had their turns to cool off for slashing each other giving an unusual 4-on-4 for the second time in a period.

Roddy could sense the desperation on the Cats part and shortened his bench a little in the third. The Cats played both games with just 11 forwards and 7 D- men. Not sure why that was but Roddy adjusted his lines to make sure all were fresh when called. Not surprisingly, the Cats dominated in hits 39 to 24 but it is a surprise that Cedric Paquette did not have one registered hit but was certainly active along the boards.

Another surprise was the Canes were only 42% successful in the faceoff circle but with their forechecking at the top of their game, they frequently gained possession if losing a faceoff. Quenneville pulled Driedger with around 2 minutes remaining and Jaccob Slavin made a long clear that wouldn’t make the Cats goal line. Necas almost forced a turnover in the Cats’ end but the Panthers were able to clear the puck.

Marchment had the puck in the right side of the neutral zone attempting a diagonal pass to the left-wing. Nino had just jumped over the boards and hit the puck along the boards in front of the benches. Necas got the puck, turned and shot the puck that was partially blocked by Gustav Forsling that limped it way into the net to seal the win.

Ned Gets his 3rd shutout in just 12 starts, Troch sets a mark for 6 goals in 6 games against his former team, the Canes jump into first place and Roddy says it’s all a team game. The next series is against Detroit at PNC. Be there!

Story by Bob Fennel. Photos courtesy of the Canes public Facebook page. See more Canes coverage on CaryCitizen

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