Fleury makes case for D spot in Hurricanes’ 4-3 preseason loss

Second-year pro has solid all-around effort, drops the gloves in first of two home exhibition games

Hurricanes defensemen Hayden Fleury checks Lightning forward Boris Katchouk during Tampa Bay's 4-3 win Wednesday at PNC Arena. (James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes lost for the first time this preseason, but for coach Bill Peters these games are still all about evaluating young talent.

“There’s things that we learned here tonight,” Peters said after the Hurricanes were beaten 4-3 Wednesday by the Tampa Bay Lightning at PNC Arena. “There were some good things, there were some things that definitely need to be cleaned up — there’s no question about that. But I thought individually some guys had good nights.”

One of those guys was Haydn Fleury, the odds-on favorite heading in to camp to pair up with Trevor van Riemsdyk on Carolina’s third defensive pairing.

“That’s a kid who looks like he’s hungry and wants to be in the National Hockey League and probably trying to tell us he’s done with the American Hockey League,” Peters said of the second-year pro.

Hungry and a little fierce.

After Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli boarded Carolina center Derek Ryan, Fleury was the first to his teammate’s aid, dropping the gloves and eventually pulling down the former Oshawa Generals captain.

“Those are the kind of hits where guys gets hurt and you don’t like to see that,” Fleury said.

So he jumped in, fighting for the first time since he was involved in a line brawl while playing with WHL Red Deer in junior. Fleury, now 21, was 18 when the Rebels and Swift Current Broncos fought nine times on Nov. 29, 2014.

A perfectly defended 2-on-1 Lightning rush and some solid puck movement illustrated how much Fleury has developed after a year in the AHL.

“I’m still a young kid, but going to Charlotte last year, living on my own and learning how to do a lot of things on my own was a big adjustment,” he said.

By no means will Fleury become Carolina’s enforcer on the back end — he had just eight penalty minutes all of last season, an amount he more than doubled with the 17 he earned from Wednesday’s fight — but he seems that much closer to grasping a job that was his to lose entering camp.

As for the game, it was sloppy but at least not as penalty-ridden as Carolina’s first two preseason games earlier this week.

Tampa Bay’s Adam Erne scored for the second time in as many nights against Carolina to break the ice. The puck kicked out in front to the 22-year-old winger, who spun and fired the puck past Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward (19 saves on 22 shots) to make it 1-0 just 6:33 into the game.

The Hurricanes went to the 5 on 3 later in the first period, courtesy a Tampa Bay slashing penalty — of course — and a high stick that sent Jordan Staal temporarily to the locker room.

With Staal unavailable, Lucas Wallmark filled in at center and was the beneficiary of some nice passing. First-round pick Martin Necas faked a one-timer and fed the puck to Elias Lindholm at the goal line, who then quickly zipped it to the goal mouth for Wallmark at 12:37.

“He’s a useful player, for sure. I like him,” Peters said of Wallmark, who has been a bit overshadowed in camp but looks like one of the more ready-for-the-NHL forwards if he’s needed.

The Lightning jumped back ahead early in the second period when a Noah Hanifin clearing attempt didn’t make it out, leading to a weak wrist shot by Mitchell Stephens that was redirected in front by Tye McGinn to make it 2-1 for the visitors.

Less than two minutes later, Tampa Bay extended the lead when defenseman Mikhail Sergachev — the key return in the deal that sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal — blasted a one-timer past Ward for a 3-1 lead at 4:28 of the second.

Derek Ryan scored for the third time in two games, driving the left post and receiving a pass from Andrew Miller — who fought off two Lightning players in front of Peter Budaj — to pull the Hurricanes within one near the game’s midway point.

Lightning forward Boris Katchouk added an insurance goal with 7:58 remaining in the game when Jeremy Smith — in for Ward to start the final period — couldn’t hold on to the puck and watched Katchouk pad the Tampa Bay lead. Smith, who had two saves on three shots, wound up with the loss when Carolina got the Lightning’s lead back to one.

Two of Carolina’s star players, Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho, hooked up for a power play goal with 96 seconds left and the Hurricanes running a 6 on 4 with Smith on the bench. Skinner passed to Aho, and the sophomore Finn’s shot beat former Hurricanes goalie Michael Leighton to make it 4-3.

Notes: Ryan and Wallmark each fared well in the faceoff circle, going 11 of 17 and 8 of 10, respectively. … Aho had a seven shot attempts in 19:19 of ice time, while linemate Elias Lindholm led in shots on goal (five) and total attempts (8). … Skinner also had eight shots attempts, but only one was on goal. … Brett Pesce played a game-high 23:42. … Phil Di Giuseppe and Gregory Hofmann were each credited with seven hits.