RALEIGH — New Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon knew a Tuesday night game against Eastern Conference also-ran Ottawa wouldn’t draw a big crowd, so he invited the 11,448 who did come to populate the lower bowl to give his team a home-ice advantage.
Through two periods, however, the Hurricanes didn’t give their fans or owner much to cheer about, slogging through what can be best described as a master class in Ottawa coach Guy Boucher’s style of hockey.
The clogged neutral zone coupled with some rusty play coming out of the All-Star break led to few chances, but the Senators finally got on the scoreboard when Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored the game’s first goal with 1:12 left in the second.
But the desperation and energy Dundon was looking for finally arrived in the third, with Sebastian Aho — back after missing four games with a concussion and lower body injury suffered against Calgary on Jan. 14 — scoring just 1:49 into the third and Victor Rask getting a power play goal with 8:28 remaining to propel Carolina to a 2-1 win.
“Guys were a little bit falling all over the place and got a few lucky bounces with pucks going off the post, but [we came] out of the first period unscathed,” Carolina goalie Cam Ward (29 saves) said. “I thought in the second period we really started to get our legs going and creating opportunities down in their zone.
“Then obviously the third, we knew the importance and the desperation that needed to take place in the locker room,” Ward added. “I thought that’s exactly what we showed in the third.”
The Hurricanes, playing the first of eight straight games at PNC Arena, tied the game when Aho ripped a slap shot that hit rookie defenseman Thomas Chabot’s stick and went past goalie Craig Anderson (37 saves).
Then with Zack Smith in the penalty box for tripping, Rask shot from the faceoff dot and froze Anderson for the eventual game-winner.
“Just a good play by (Justin Williams),” Rask said. “He held on to the puck and just passed it to me and I got a pretty clean shot and I’m lucky it went in.”
The first two periods saw both teams mostly trying to find their footing coming out of a long weekend off.
“I thought it was a little ragged both ways, and then I thought we started to skate better as the game went on and I thought we started to execute better,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “And then obviously a huge goal to tie it up.”
That goal came from Aho, just two weeks and two days removed from a hit from Flames captain Mark Giordano that left him concussed and with what appeared to be a serious knee injury.
“I’m really impressed with the way that he played and the way that he handled himself when he was injured, too,” Ward said of Aho. “I assumed that he was going to be out longer, and here we are. He was coming out there, he wanted to play. He wants to be an impact player, and we need him out there.”
They also needed the two points to start a crucial homestand that will likely determine if the team is a playoff contender or pretender. At 23-19-8, Carolina trails Philadelphia by two points and Columbus by four for the two wild card spots, with both the Rangers and Islanders a point ahead of them to climb over as well.
“We’ve made it no secret this is our playoff hockey right now,” Ward said. “We need to make a push to try to get us to the real dance, and it started tonight.”
Notes: Jaccob Slavin (17:39) and Brett Pesce (17:05), Carolina’s top defense pair, played the fewest minutes of the team’s six defensemen. … Outside of Joakim Nordstrom (8:33) and Marcus Kruger (9:48), every Hurricanes player logged at least 14:31 (Brock McGinn). … Matt Duchene, who was often talked about as a potential trade target for Carolina when he was in Colorado, finished with one shot and a minus-1 in 17:21 for the Senators. … Jeff Skinner finished with a game-high 10 shots attempts (six shots of goal). … Jordan Staal won 12 of 17 faceoffs.