RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour couldn’t help but wonder how his young team would respond to playing for the first time in eight days following the All-Star break and the team’s bye week.
He shouldn’t have worried.
After allowing the game’s first goal, the Hurricanes picked up where they left off before the break, beating the Vegas Golden Knights 5-2 Friday in front of 17,104 at PNC Arena.
“It was a real solid effort,” Brind’Amour said. “Both teams, I think if you talk to their group, too, they probably thought they were a little sluggish. Not sharp. The execution wasn’t great. but the effort level was really high, and I’m really happy with, obviously, the win, but certainly the way we played. The effort.”
The Hurricanes top line went plus-3 against Vegas’ No. 1 line, and Petr Mrazek made several key stops — none bigger than a flurry of saves he made in the final moments of the second period, right after Carolina regained the lead — to earn improve to 3-0-1 in their last four games and stay in the playoff hunt.
Tied at 2-2 late in the second period after Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore scored his second goal of the night, Jordan Martinook and Sebastian Aho scored goals at the end of the second and beginning of the third, respectively, to give Carolina a two-goal cushion that they padded with a late empty-net goal by Justin Faulk.
Martinook — who added the title of Dad and signed a two-year contract extension in the past week — had the biggest goal.
After Theodore tied it back up in the final minutes of the second with a wrist shot that went off the post and in with 2:13 left, Martinook answered 36 seconds later. On a rush up the ice, Brock McGinn feathered a pass across to Martinook, who banged the shot home past Maxime Lagace for his 11th goal, matching his career high just 51 games into the season.
“As soon I scored it, it was just — I had one thought in my mind, and it was my kid,” Martinook said, referring his newborn son, Chase. “So, yeah, it was pretty cool.”
Aho then carried his impressive showing at All-Star weekend over to Friday’s game, speeding up the right wing and lifting a backhand over Lagace’s shoulder.
“I didn’t have much, so I just went backhand and it went in,” Aho said.
Vegas scored first just 5:01 into the game to jump ahead.
With Justin Williams in the box for holding the stick, Theodore got his seventh goal of the year with a booming one-timer that beat Mrazek (23 saves).
It didn’t take Carolina long to get the equalizer — and for Williams to redeem himself.
Williams, hovering just outside the blue paint, made a nifty kick pass to Nino Niederreiter in the slot for the Swiss winger’s fifth goal in five games with the Hurricanes. The Golden Knights challenged for goaltender interference on Williams, who made contact with Lagace’s stick, but the goal was upheld.
“I gave him crap because the first goal, really, it’s his penalty and he’s trying to a little too much,” Brind’Amour said. “Then, that’s a top-10 play for me. You’re not going to see too many guys think to that. He got it right back for us, and that’s what he’s done all year.”
The Hurricanes then quickly took the lead early in the second. Lagace bellyflopped to poke check the puck but pushed it right to Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce. He fired it into the open net for a 2-1 lead just 47 seconds into the middle frame — the second of three goals scored in the game with the Niederreiter-Aho-Williams line matched up against the Golden Knights’ top line centered by William Karlsson.
“He’s gotta play both ends of the rink, and I think Nino’s helped in that regard, too, to play with him,” Brind’Amour said of Aho. “And Willy’s been, he just keeps plugging along.”
At 10-3-1 in their last 14 games, the Hurricanes are also plugging along — right into the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. The win Friday tied them with Buffalo just on the outside of the final wild card spot with 56 points through 51 games — just three behind Columbus, who has one game in hand.
“We’re still a young team, we’re learning every day,” Aho said. “When you get the wins, maybe you start believing more like, ‘OK, this is the way we have to do it every night,’ and we’ve done a pretty good job of that lately.”
Notes: Valentin Zykov played his second game for the Golden Knights since being claimed off waivers from Edmonton on Dec. 29. Zykov played 13 games for Carolina this season, registering three assists, before being claimed off waivers by the Oilers on Nov. 30. … With a secondary assist on Niederreiter’s first period goal, Faulk became the top scoring defenseman in Hurricanes history with his 241st point, passing former Whalers rearguard Dave Babych. … Faulk was plus-5 on the night, taking him from minus-4 to plus-1 on the season. The plus-5 showing was the best of Faulk’s career — he had been a career-best plus-3 12 times in his career previously.