RALEIGH — Teams often struggle in their first game home from a long road trip, but the Carolina Hurricanes looked engaged early and carried play coming off a five-game road that saw them collect nine points.
But mistakes — both self-inflicted and by the referees — proved too much for the Hurricanes to overcome in a 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in front of 18,224 Saturday at PNC Arena.
Florida’s Evgenii Dadonov scored on a breakaway triggered by a misplayed puck by Carolina defenseman Jake Gardiner to open the scoring at 7:07 of the first — and then Carolina’s penalty box door started swinging.
The Panthers then scored twice on power plays that came off questionable calls, building a three-goal cushion that the Hurricanes couldn’t overcome.
“We let the refs get in our head a little in the second period, and it slowed our game down a bit,” captain Jordan Staal said of a series of calls that left the Hurricanes scratching their heads and the fans booing the officials.
The first curious call came midway through the second when Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov was called for a high stick on the follow-through of a pass — which isn’t supposed to result in a high-sticking call.
“The high stick one, “coach Rod Brind’Amour said, “which I kind of thought was a follow-through on a pass that led to a goal. You know, we gotta kill those.”
They didn’t, as Florida scored when an Aaron Ekblad point shot glanced off a screening Brian Boyle’s knee and went past Petr Mrazek (18 saves) to push the lead to two at 11:34 of the middle frame.
Then the final minute of the period included a bizarre sequence.
With 30 seconds left in the period, the Panthers’ Brett Connolly and Svechnikov got tied up in the corner, and when they separated, Svechnikov stick caught Connolly in the upper body. Connolly threw back his head to seemingly sell the call.
Carolina defenseman Joel Edmundson took exception to the embellishment and gave Connolly a shove, and Florida defenseman Josh Brown stepped in to confront Edmundson. Both dropped their gloves, but the officials separated them.
After a long delay, four unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — one on each of the four players involved — were called, plus a high stick on Svechnikov.
“Svech got the slash, and they both got unsportsmanlikes,” alternate captain Jordan Martinook said of the calls. “And then Eddie and the other guy, they’re not going to give them a fighting, so they gave them an unsportsmanlike.”
Why did Connolly and Svechnikov get matching unsportsmanlike penalties?
“I don’t know. They didn’t really explain it,” Martinook added. “I think he might have gave (Connolly) an unsportsmanlike for embellishment. Just put an extra one on Svech. I don’t know.”
The Hurricanes made it to the end of the period but entered the locker room trying to figure out what just happened.
“I think are all kind of mindset is go out there and get that penalty killed,” Martinook said.
But the Panthers scored again when Jonathan Huberdeau exploited a defensive breakdown and lured Mrazek from the net, shooting the puck into an open cage for a power play goal to make it 3-0 just 26 seconds into the third.
From there, Carolina dominated play, outshooting Florida 20-5 in the third period and scoring twice — one for Nino Niederreiter at 9:16, then a second by Lucas Wallmark on the power play at 12:59 — sandwiched around Noel Acciari’s seventh goal in three games on an odd-man rush.
“Obviously, you’ve seen what we did in the third period,” Martinook said. “If we get that penalty killed, it’s a different game. … We gave it to them the whole period.”
Instead, Carolina’s seven-game point streak was snapped, helped along by bad bounces, questionable officiating and a red-hot Chris Driedger (42 saves) making his third career NHL start in net.
“We didn’t get the bounces tonight, that’s essentially all it was,” Brind’Amour said. “I thought our guys play hard. Their goalie was great — gotta give him a lot of credit. He made a ton of really nice saves, and give their team credit for blocking a lot of shots. … But I thought that our game was solid. Play like and continue to play like that, we going to get certainly more wins than losses.”
Teuvo Teravainen had an even simpler explanation.
“Just didn’t get, really, bounces tonight,” he said. “So, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win.”
Notes: Carolina held an 84-34 shot attempt advantage and doubled up the Panthers in shots of goal, 44-22. … Erik Haula played his first game since Nov. 16. He finished with five shots on goal and seven total shot attempts, won 10 of 15 faceoffs and was a minus-2 in 15:15 of ice time. … Mrazek had 15 straight home wins dating back to last season until he finally lost Nov. 7. Starting with that game, he’s 5-4-1 at PNC Arena since.