RALEIGH — Much has been made of Carolina’s shutdown pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Justin Faulk’s underwhelming one-goal season has been a talking point. Quietly, Noah Hanifin — the player who initially had the most hype as a former first-round pick — is becoming a star.
Hanifin was a factor in all three zones Saturday, most notably getting the game-winning goal in the Hurricanes’ 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in front of 11,457 at PNC Arena.
Hanifin’s sixth goal of the season started with the teams playing 4 on 4. Jeff Skinner made a nifty backhand pass after entering the zone to Derek Ryan on the right wing. Ryan tried to find a streaking Hanifin, but Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg deflected the puck on his own goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky flashed his left pad to make the save, but Hanifin was there for the rebound to score the deciding goal at 12:58 of the second period.
“I don’t what it is, I think almost all my goals this year have been like five feet from the crease,” Hanifin said. “But it was a good play, obviously — 4 on 4, it’s a good opportunity to make some offensive plays. Doc (Ryan) making a play to try to get it to the net. I think there was a deflection, maybe off their D-man. So it was a good bounce.”
That wasn’t Hanifin’s only contribution on a night for a team returning home not just from a game in Buffalo the night before, but a nearly two-week-long, six-game road trip. Facing the rugged Blue Jackets, Hanifin planted Oliver Bjorkstrand on his backside immediately after the forward had crunched him moments earlier.
“You want to show a good response, especially against a team like that that’s pretty heavy and physical; they want to get in your kitchen a little bit,” Hanifin said. “I think it’s good to give it back.”
He also thwarted Cam Atkinson in a one-on-one play, keeping Columbus’ shifty sniper wide, then wiping a rebound away from danger.
“He’s a young kid, he’s not quite 21 yet, and getting better in every aspect of the game, and he should do that for about the next seven years, right?” Carolina coach Bill Peters said of Hanifin. “You know, that’s what it’s all about. He’s getting some experience now, he’s getting stronger as he goes.”
The last line of defense behind Hanifin fared well, too.
Scott Darling, who sat the last two games and watched Cam Ward get wins in both, was sharp from the get-go and finished with 35 saves, his best effort in a win this season.
“I felt really good tonight. I felt confident and you get into it,” Darling said. “I haven’t had a lot of games where I got a lot of shots early, so it got me into the game and I knew I was seeing the puck good.”
Darling made 15 saves in the first period alone when Blue Jackets held a 16-8 shot advantage, but Carolina escaped the period tied 1-1.
The Hurricanes (14-11-7) scored first. With Brock McGinn crashing the far side post, Jordan Staal whipped a centering pass that hit off Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson and went past Bobrovsky for Staal’s ninth goal of the year and a 1-0 lead just 3:40 into the game.
Wennberg then got his third goal of the season at 12:01 of the first to tie it. Skinner lost possession to Atkinson along the boards, who feathered a pass that Wennberg redirected through the pads of Darling.
That was all the Blue Jackets (20-12-1) would get by the Carolina goalie, who credited Ward with helping him continue to grow comfortable with his new team.
“I’m learning every day. I learn a lot from Cam, too,” Darling said. “He’s been showing me the ropes. You know, it’s not going to happen overnight, and I’m excited to keep working on it.
“He’s talks to me and keeps my confidence up,” Darling continued when asked to elaborate. “You know, he’s been through it all with his career, he’s seen the highs and the lows. If he sees me down, he’s quick to give me a pat on the back. … He’s been great to me.”
The tandem has now led Carolina to three straight wins, the first time this season the team has strung together six points.
“It’s big time. We need to get on a roll,” Darling said. “And they’re all gutsy games, too — three hard wins, none of them came easy. So that says something about the way the guys are working right now.”
Notes: Phil Di Giuseppe and Haydn Fleury, who each played the night before, were healthy scratches in favor of fresh-legged Josh Jooris and Klas Dahlbeck, respectively. … Hanifin’s goal is his sixth in 32 games. He had a total of eight goals (four goals in each of his first two seasons) coming into this season. … The Hurricanes kept Columbus’ league-worst power play in check, stopping four man-advantage opportunities for the Blue Jackets. Carolina’s power play never got much of chance — both attempts were cut short by a penalty. … Columbus outshot Carolina 36-24. … Elias Lindholm won all eight of his faceoffs. … Staal left the game in the second period after falling awkwardly near the boards. He returned later in the period and said after the game he had a stinger.