RALEIGH, N.C. — Jon Merrill wasn’t all that interested in discussing the Carolina Hurricanes’ unique postgame victory celebrations, and the Golden Knights defenseman wasn’t alone.
“We’ll try to avoid them being able to do that,” he said diplomatically after Friday’s morning skate.
Less than 10 hours later, the Hurricanes were playing Duck, Duck, Goose at center ice in front of a crowd of 17,104 after a 5-2 victory over the Knights at PNC Arena.
Shea Theodore scored twice for the Knights, who lost their third straight game and fifth in the past seven.
“It seemed like we didn’t have too much of a connection tonight, and that’s something we have to focus on and just try to be a little bit sharper,” Theodore said. “I think the decision-making as a group wasn’t good enough. They were pretty hard on the forecheck, and that kind of shut us down quite a bit.”
The Knights (and Carolina, for that matter) were playing their first game in nine days after the All-Star Game and bye week, but the layoff appeared to have a greater effect on the visitors.
The Knights struggled to connect on passes and managed 24 shots on goal, their fewest since they registered 22 in an overtime loss Dec. 14 at New Jersey.
Goaltender Maxime Lagace, who served as the backup in the final six games before the break, was handed his first start on the front end of a back-to-back.
He finished with 27 saves, though he was critical of himself for allowing Sebastian Aho’s backhander from a tight angle to sneak over his shoulder and give Carolina a 4-2 lead at 3:51 of the third period.
“Obviously I was a little nervous at the start. First NHL game in a while,” said Lagace, whose last start with the Knights was Feb. 27 against Los Angeles. “But I found my game pretty quick, and I felt good. Obviously I wish I had two more saves for the boys.”
Theodore put the Knights ahead 5:01 into the first period with a power-play goal, then made something out of nothing with 2:13 remaining in the second period to tie the score 2-2.
Ryan Reaves stickhandled near the blue line and feathered a backhand pass to an on-rushing Theodore, whose wrist shot from the circle beat Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek to the glove side.
But Carolina answered 36 seconds later with the go-ahead goal, as the Knights were caught up ice and Jordan Martinook finished off an odd-man rush to give the Hurricanes a 3-2 advantage.
”It was disappointing because we worked hard to get that second goal to tie it up late in the period, and then I think it was the next shift or shortly after that that they came back and got that goal,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was definitely a momentum changer for sure.”
Mrazek made 22 saves to help the Hurricanes win for the 10th time in 14 games (10-3-1).
Justin Faulk had an empty-net goal with 49.1 seconds left and also picked up an assist to become the franchise leader in career points by a defenseman (241).
Justin Williams added two assists, including a soccer-style kick to Nino Niederreiter in the first period for his fifth goal in five games since being acquired from Minnesota.
Carolina took a 2-1 lead 47 seconds into the second when Lagace was forced to leave his crease and dive to poke away the puck.
But it went right to Brett Pesce, and the defenseman put it into the open net when Lagace couldn’t recover in time.
“We weren’t brutal, but we weren’t good enough to win,” Gallant said. “I thought they played a pretty good game, and their goalie made some key saves at key times.”
Who: Golden Knights at Panthers
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise, Florida
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Golden Knights -110; total 6
1. Something to prove. Golden Knights forward Valentin Zykov played his second game since being claimed on waivers Dec. 29 and finished with no shots on goal and one hit in 12:32 of ice time. The former Hurricanes prospect had a scoring chance late in the first period and also saw time in a top-six forward role with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault in the third period.
2. Negative numbers. The Karlsson-Marchessault-Reilly Smith line was badly outplayed by Carolina’s top line of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter and Justin Williams, which combined for two goals and two assists. Karlsson and Marchessault each finished minus-4, and Smith had a minus-3 rating.
3. Something positive. There wasn’t much to take from the loss, but Knights center Paul Stastny managed an assist on Shea Theodore’s first goal to extend his point streak to six games. Stastny has one goal and seven assists during his streak.
David Schoen Review-Journal