PITTSBURGH – The Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first four months of the season shadowboxing each other for the top spot in perhaps the NHL's most competitive division.
Skating on the same sheet of ice for the first time in nearly two years, Carolina sent a very direct, very emphatic message: The Hurricanes are every bit as dangerous as the star-laden Penguins. And they have the firepower to prove it.
Jesper Fast scored 9 seconds into the third period to break a tie, Sebastian Aho followed with his 22nd goal of the season and the Hurricanes edged Pittsburgh 4-3 on Sunday to move into first place in the Metropolitan Division.
“I see some battles (ahead),” said Carolina center and former Penguin Jordan Staal, who scored his fourth goal of the season 9 seconds into the second period on a bit of a fluky bounce. “We play a fair amount against each other the next few weeks, in the division. It’s a lot of fun. Two good teams going at it.”
Jesperi Kotkaniemi also scored for Carolina, which never trailed in the first meeting of the season between the teams that entered the day tied atop perhaps the league's most competitive division. Antti Raanta made 31 saves to pick up his 100th career victory.
Evan Rodrigues scored his first goal since Jan. 6 to get Pittsburgh within one with 1:12 remaining, but the Hurricanes held on.
Bryan Rust scored his eighth goal in his past eight games and Sidney Crosby added the 501st goal of his career. Tristan Jarry finished with 26 stops for Pittsburgh and played well despite a series of breakdowns in front of him early on that allowed the Hurricanes to control play for significant stretches.
“We gave them too many chances,” Rust said. "We obviously didn’t have the greatest start and I think we got on our heels a little bit and once we got down 2-0, we countered from there. We were good for the last 60% of the game, but against a team like that, you can’t spot them two.”
The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 0-2 at the start of a challenging stretch that began with a listless loss to Toronto last Thursday and includes two more matchups with the Hurricanes as well as showdowns with Tampa Bay, Florida and the New York Rangers.
“It’s a hard game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "It had a playoff feel to it in that there wasn’t a lot of room out there. You have to fight for every inch. That’s the game we need to embrace moving forward. That’s playoff hockey.”
The Hurricanes spent most of the first period creating multiple breakaway or odd-man rushes that Jarry fended off until Kotkaniemi broke through 15:18 into the game when he collected a loose puck in the slot and fired it high over Jarry's glove.
Staal doubled the lead just 9 seconds into the second period when he found himself in the right spot following a shot by defenseman Brett Pesce. Pittsburgh's Jeff Carter's attempted clear from the slot smacked off Staal and slid into the net.
The Penguins emerged from their funk midway through the second period. Rust poked home a rebound off Kris Letang's shot 14:43 into the period gave Pittsburgh some life. Crosby followed with his 15th of the season a little less than three minutes later when he smoked a slap shot from the left circle just over Raanta's outstretched left pad.
The momentum, however, did not carry over to the third. Brady Skjei stepped in front of a pass by Pittsburgh's Brian Dumoulin in the neutral zone and slipped the puck to Nino Niederreiter while Fast streaked down the right side. Fast buried Niederreiter's centering pass to immediately put the Penguins back on their heels.
Aho made it a two-goal game with a one-timer from the left circle on the power play with just under six minutes to play. Rodrigues’s first goal in 19 games with Jarry pulled led to a few tense moments in the final seconds before the clock expired to give the Hurricanes a win in a game that could serve as a preview of things to come this spring.
“The third period was a good battle,” Staal said. "I thought our special teams was big. (The) power-play goal was huge. Gave us a little breathing room.”
NOTES: Carolina D Brendan Smith left in the first period and did not return after taking a puck to the ear while sliding to block a shot. The team said after the game that Smith was transported to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for evaluation and imaging and he was in stable condition and has been released to travel with the team to Philadelphia, where he will continue to be monitored by the team's medical staff. ... Pittsburgh honored Crosby with a plaque commemorating his 500th career goal during a pregame ceremony. Crosby became the 46th player in NHL history to reach the milestone in a win over Philadelphia last Tuesday.
Hurricanes: Travel to the other side of Pennsylvania to face Philadelphia on Monday night.
Pittsburgh: Have a few days off before hosting New Jersey on Thursday night.
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