RALEIGH, N.C. – Joni Pitkanen and Dan LaCouture found the perfect way to fit in with their new Carolina teammates: Lead them to a season-opening victory over the team that kept them out of the playoffs.
Both of the Hurricanes’ newcomers scored in their debut Friday night, and Carolina beat the Florida Panthers 6-4 in the opener for both teams.
Rod Brind’Amour, Tuomu Ruutu and Ray Whitney also scored, Matt Cullen added an empty-net goal, Tim Gleason had three assists and Frantisek Kaberle had two to help Carolina rally from an early two-goal deficit.
“I’m just happy I was able to contribute – it ended up being the game-winning goal,” LaCouture said. “The biggest thing is, we won the game and I’m happy I was able to contribute in some way.”
Nathan Horton made it a one-goal game with 8:29 left by beating Carolina’s Cam Ward with a wrist shot. Ward stopped the final four shots he faced, and Cullen’s goal with 26.4 seconds left sealed the Hurricanes’ first season-opening victory at home since 2001.
David Booth had a goal and an assist, and Radek Dvorak and former Hurricane Cory Stillman also scored for Florida, which lost Pete DeBoer’s coaching debut. Ward finished with 29 saves, and Tomas Vokoun stopped 18 shots for the Panthers.
“I just didn’t make enough saves,” Vokoun said. “We outplayed them. We just have to clean up some stuff. … It wasn’t my best game (but) we definitely played well enough to win tonight.”
Pitkanen, acquired from Edmonton in July for fan favourite Erik Cole, gave Carolina the lead for good with about five minutes left in the second when he took a feed from Gleason in the left circle and snapped the puck past Vokoun to make it 4-3.
LaCouture, a 31-year-old veteran who played in Switzerland last year and made the team as an unsigned free agent, made it a two-goal game early in the third with a wrist shot off a rebound for his first NHL goal in “definitely a couple years.”
“They didn’t really have a defenceman around me, and I just wanted to make sure I was able to get the shot off quick enough before (the defence) was able to slide over,” LaCouture said. “There’s no better feeling.”
Neither of them was around for Carolina’s finale in April, when the Panthers’ 4-1 victory – their first in Raleigh since 2002 – knocked the Hurricanes out of the Southeast Division lead and wound up keeping them out of the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
“We were very anxious and nervous, and a lot of hype went into this game, from playing them the last game of last season, so we were maybe a little too nervous, too fired up,” Whitney said. “And sometimes when you’re doing that, you get a little jittery – you’ll see that in football, guys get a little anxious and the offsides come, the mental mistakes, and that’s what it was tonight.”
Florida, playing its first game since dealing scoring leader Olli Jokinen to Phoenix, threatened to make it two straight at the RBC Center by jumping out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Booth and Stillman, the last coming with a two-man advantage.
“A lot of people are questioning our scoring without Olli here, but a lot of guys stepped up today,” Booth said. “We keep scoring four goals. … A lot of good things tonight.”
Carolina then reeled off three straight goals over the next 17 minutes: Ruutu redirected Dennis Seidenberg’s hard blast past Vokoun and Whitney beat him with a wrist shot from the slot in the first, and Brind’Amour put Carolina up midway through the second by tapping a loose puck past the Florida goalie.
“It was perfect game plan to quiet the building,” DeBoer said, “until they came back at us.”
Seven minutes later, Dvorak tied it at 3 with a high wrist shot.
Notes: C Brandon Sutter made his Carolina debut. The Hurricanes’ first-round draft pick in 2007 is the son of former NHL centre Brent Sutter and the nephew of Calgary general manager Darryl Sutter. … Florida D Bryan McCabe left midway through the second with an apparent left leg injury. He twisted as he collided with Seidenberg into the boards. … The Panthers have lost consecutive openers since winning three in a row from 2003-06. … Whitney’s goal was his 200th point with the Hurricanes. … U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., rang the new “Hurricanes Warning Siren” during the team’s pre-game entrance.