Carolina Hurricanes\' Jeff Skinner celebrates his goal with Eric Staal, left, during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
RALEIGH, N.C. - The breaks are going Florida's way, and that's why the Panthers are in first place.
Those things aren't happening for Carolina, and that's why the Hurricanes changed coaches.
Kirk Muller's debut behind Carolina's bench ended in defeat Tuesday night when the Panthers beat the Hurricanes 3-1 on a goal by Shawn Matthias with 3:19 left to play.
Matthias added an empty-netter in the final minute and Tomas Fleischmann also scored for the Southeast Division-leading Panthers. Jose Theodore made 26 saves.
"If I'm (a) player with a new coach, I'm going to come out with a ton of jump, and they did," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "That one was not our finest effort. It wasn't our worst effort. It was one of those games where you find a way and we found a way tonight."
Florida went more than 20 minutes between shots before scoring late to snap a two-game losing streak and earn points for the fifth time in six games. It moved five points ahead of Washington, which lost 2-1 to St. Louis.
Jeff Skinner scored and Cam Ward stopped 18 shots—and stuffed Jack Skille's penalty shot midway through the third period—for last-place Carolina, which lost its fourth straight.
Still, Muller's post-game message was positive.
"I said to them, 'You guys did your part. You came, played hard.'" Muller said. "It's been probably the way some of the games have been for them this year, and you want to give them hope. I just told them, 'It wasn't tonight, but ... when you go through these things, it can drain you so much.'
"I said, 'You know what, as an athlete, if you give it all you got, you have to feel good—especially in these times now.'"
Matthias' winner came after Carolina defenceman Tomas Kaberle attempted to send the puck around the boards and out of the zone. Matthias held it in, then skated near the right post, took a pass from Tomas Kopecky and stuffed the puck past Ward.
"He banked it in on me," Ward said.
The matchup between coaches and teams was appropriate, with Muller making his debut against one of his former clubs in Florida and one of his playing contemporaries in Dineen, the Panthers' first-year coach and a former Whalers and Hurricanes captain who holds the club record with 1,439 penalty minutes.
Without question, the overriding subplot of this game was Muller, who took over a day earlier after Paul Maurice was dismissed by Carolina for the second time in a decade.
Under Maurice's watch, the Hurricanes appeared headed for a third straight finish outside the playoff field after starting 8-13-4 and dropping to 14th place in the Eastern Conference. They entered having lost 10 of 13.
"The effort was there. We competed," captain Eric Staal said.
In discussing Maurice's firing, general manager Jim Rutherford expressed concern that the team had not jelled. Owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said following the morning skate Tuesday that "the thing that we seem to be lacking most, lately, is confidence."
The 45-year-old Muller was brought aboard to change that. The six-time all-star had five 30-goal seasons and seven 70-point years during his nearly two-decade playing career which included the Montreal Canadiens' last Stanley Cup in 1993.
On his first night behind the Carolina bench, a sign behind the glass proclaimed him "Captain Kirk;" he wore the "C'' for multiple teams when he played. Instead of blowing up the depth chart or overhauling the Xs and Os—and acknowledging that would be nearly impossible since he'd been on the job for only about 24 hours—he made subtle tweaks and wanted the Hurricanes to relax, skate with confidence and be accountable to one another.
"We just asked them this morning to bring a good, competitive part of your game here tonight," Muller said. "We added a couple things, a little change in the system to be a little more aggressive and up-ice, so you don't have any time to really practice it. I thought they really did their part."
Of course, some things will take plenty of time to fix—like the power play, one of the worst in the NHL. Carolina, which scores only 12 per cent of the time with theman advantage, was 0 of 5 in this one.
"We've got to work on it," Muller said. "The tough thing tonight was, 5-on-5, we were going so well but the power play didn't create any momentum for us."
Fleischmann put the Panthers up 1-0 midway through the second and 13 seconds into a boarding minor on Patrick Dwyer when he rocketed a shot from behind the circle that beat Ward high and rang the crossbar on its way into the net.
Skinner tied it 64 seconds later when he beat Theodore from point-blank range.
Skille was awarded his second career penalty shot with 12:09 left in the third after Joni Pitkanen dragged him down from behind, but his free shot went directly into Ward.
"We were frustrated," Matthias said. "We just kept working hard and staying with it."
NOTES: The Hurricanes claimed RW Andreas Nodl on waivers from Philadelphia and reassigned Brett Sutter to their AHL affiliate in Charlotte. Nodl skated on Carolina's fourth line with Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent. ... The Panthers matched a season low with two shots on goal in the first period. That also marked the fewest shots allowed in a period this season by Carolina. ... The Panthers recalled C Mark Cullen from their AHL team in San Antonio.