Carolina Hurricanes' Eric Staal (12) shoots against Florida Panthers goalie Jose Theodore as Panthers' Marcel Goc (57), of Germany, watches during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes had a pretty good night: They added "Skins," a Finn—and another win.
Joni Pitkanen had a goal and an assist in his first game in three months, and Carolina beat Florida 3-1 Wednesday night to snap the Panthers' five-game winning streak.
"For a guy that's been out of the lineup as long as he (has), he looked real good," captain Eric Staal said.
Staal had his second straight two-goal game—giving him a team-leading 23 goals—and Cam Ward made 30 saves to help the Hurricanes win their season-best fourth straight and earn points for the 14th time in 17 home games.
Two key players were back on the ice for Carolina: Pitkanen, a native of Finland who missed 44 games with a concussion and a left knee injury that required surgery, and Jeff Skinner, a teenager nicknamed "Skins" who served a two-game suspension for kicking St. Louis forward Scott Nichol last week with his skate.
"I don't remember the last time I was this nervous before a game," Pitkanen said. "The first period was so fast, and the game went longer, and I started feeling more comfortable."
The Hurricanes are still a longshot to make the playoff field—they trail eighth-place Washington by five points with eight games left—but they're at least keeping things interesting.
Tomas Fleischmann scored for the Southeast Division-leading Panthers, who had been on their longest winning streak since a club-record seven straight in 2008 and were denied their first season sweep in Raleigh.
"We knew that we just couldn't throw our sticks in there and be handed two points," defenceman Ed Jovanovski said. "We knew we had to work hard. We knew they're playing well of late, they've won a few in a row, and it was going to be a tough game."
Jose Theodore, who entered 4-0 this season against the Hurricanes, stopped 36 shots for Florida.
Pitkanen put the Hurricanes up 2-0 with 9:05 left in the second period when he scored in transition. Tuomo Ruutu left him the puck behind the left circle and the defenceman blasted it past Theodore.
Florida made it 2-1 68 seconds later after Ward couldn't wrap up a shot by Jovanovski. Fleischmann's second-chance attempt ricocheted off Pitkanen's skate and into the net for his 23rd goal, matching a career high.
"I thought they came out very hard, and really showed they wanted to win this game," Florida forward Mikael Samuelsson said. "We battled back a little bit, but in the end, they played better than we did. ... Special teams (are) huge, and we were not great today, by no means."
Staal then scored on a power play with 11:36 left in the third—off a pretty assist from Pitkanen—and Ward stopped the final 13 shots he faced for his second straight win.
Staal entered with 42 goals in his previous 36 games—a major reason why the Hurricanes have been so hot lately—and wasted virtually no time adding to that total.
He put Carolina up 46 seconds in when he skated unimpeded down the wing and behind Theodore, then flipped a shot along the red line that clipped a Florida skater on its way into the net.
"I think I've tried that probably 15-20 times this year and it hasn't gone in," Staal said. "But it was good timing tonight, because it was nice to get off to the 1-0 lead and take our game from there."
Brandon Sutter came close to making it a two-goal game for the Hurricanes with a short-handed wraparound that got behind Theodore and travelled along the goal line—but never fully crossed it. A 2-minute video review upheld that on-ice call, and Pitkanen's goal came 31 seconds later.
NOTES: Things got chippy after the final horn, with both teams briefly confronting each other at centre ice before the officials sent them to their dressing rooms. ... The Hurricanes have scored at least one goal in 10 consecutive periods. ... Fleischmann has four goals this season against Carolina. ... Staal has four goals in his last two games and points in three straight. ... Florida C Shawn Matthias, a healthy scratch, missed his first game since Oct. 20.