RALEIGH — Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour called Friday night’s matchup with the equally red-hot St. Louis Blues “a battle of wills.”
And if anyone knows how to battle until the end, it is four-time boxing champion Evander Holyfield. Holyfield delivered a pregame speech to the Hurricanes, then delivered a Storm Surge knockout blow after Carolina put the Blues on the mat in a 5-2 win in front of 15,363 at PNC Arena.
“It was a good battle. You kind of knew what was coming,” Brind’Amour said. “They’re a great team right now, kind of firing on all cylinders, and I think we are too.”
It was as advertised, with it 2-2 in the second when the Blues had a chance to seize the lead with Brett Pesce, a key Hurricanes’ penalty killer, the penalty box.
But it was Carolina — namely Sebastian Aho — who outwilled St. Louis.
Following a clear into the corner of the Blues zone, goalie Jake Allen misplayed the puck and lost it in the no-play zone. He scrambled to get back to the crease, but Aho got to the puck first, circled the net and deposited the puck in the empty cage for a shorthanded goal and a 3-2 lead at 13:03 of the second.
“I saw him going after it and I was pretty close,” Aho said. “He mishandled it and, yeah, it was a lucky bounce, but I’ll take those.”
Then midway through the third and Carolina clinging to a one-goal lead, Jordan Staal — in just his third game back after missing two months with a concussion — one-timed a Teuvo Teravainen pass into the net for his first goal since Nov. 2. That made it 4-2 with under 10 minutes remaining and gave Staal five points since getting back on the ice.
“We’ve talked many times about what we’ve been missing, and it’s the stuff he provides,” Brind’Amour said of Staal. “And so it’s nice to have him back, for sure. It’s a comfort for a coach to have that body in the lineup, and he’s played great since he’s been back.”
The two teams jockeyed back and forth in the early going, determined to get to their game against an opponent with a very similar style.
The Blues got on the board first when defenseman Vince Dunn sidestepped a Brock McGinn check and then found a shooting lane when Haydn Fleury — in the lineup for the injured Calvin de Haan — fell down. That cleared the way for a Dunn shot, which was redirected by Oskar Sundqvist and past Curtis McElhinney (21 saves) for an early St. Louis lead at 6:59 of the first.
But Carolina answered quickly — twice.
First, Brett Pesce got the puck over to captain Justin Williams, who fired a dart past Allen (19 saves) to tie the game just 41 seconds after St. Louis opened the scoring.
“He keeps doing it. … Your best players have to be your best players, and he just finds a way,” Brind’Amour said of Williams.
Then three minutes later, Justin Faulk wristed a shot from the high slot that found its way in for his eighth goal of the season and a 2-1 Carolina lead just past the midway point of the first period.
The Blues tied the score early in the second when another Dunn point shot went end-over-end and past a screened McElhinney at 2:13 of the middle frame.
That was all St. Louis would get by McElhinney and the Carolina defense, and the Hurricanes got the shortie from Aho, Staal’s goal and added an empty-netter by Andrei Svechnikov for the final result.
Then came Holyfield. The four-time heavyweight champ joined the Hurricanes on ice, gloves and all, and delivered a scripted knockout of Jordan Martinook, who was then dragged off the ice — “unconscious” — by Williams and Micheal Ferland.
“I’ve met a lot of people in my day, and that was probably the one most special,” Brind’Amour said. “Just because I remember I was playing when he was the man. He was a real inspiration for me. Just to see that guy walk through the locker room and talk to our guys. He said exactly what I would have hoped he would say. Very special time. That was a great moment for me.”