Category 5: Hurricanes get final chance to beat Panthers

Florida won the first two meetings between the Eastern Conference-leading teams

Hurricanes center Vincent Trocheck wins a faceoff against Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen on Jan. 8. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Just two opponents have managed to beat the Hurricanes twice this season: the Ottawa Senators and Wednesday’s visitor, the Florida Panthers.

Carolina isn’t alone in struggling against the Panthers. Florida currently has the Eastern Conference’s best point percentage at .734, with the Hurricanes closely behind at .728. The winner of the final regular season meeting between the teams on Wednesday will sit first in the conference.

1. Beating Florida is easier said than done. The Panthers handed the Hurricanes their first loss of the season, 5-2, back on Nov. 6 and followed that up with a 4-3 overtime win Jan. 8.

“They’ve had our number this year,” defenseman Ian Cole said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “That first game in Florida they certainly did. … They’re a great hockey team. We like to think of ourselves as a great hockey team. It’s going to be a great test tonight, and thus far they’ve had the better of that. So we need to play better and get a win.”

The Hurricanes went 6-0-2 against the Panthers last year when the teams were together in the reorganized Central Division, and that helped build a healthy rivalry between the teams. Florida coach Andrew Brunette told the media the Hurricanes “don’t like us,” an assessment with which Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour partially agreed.

“Nobody likes anybody, that’s just how it is when you’re playing,” he said.

2. Speaking of that, Vincent Trocheck — formerly of the Panthers — doesn’t have any warm and fuzzy feelings about his old team becoming a contender since he left.

“I don’t care about their success. I’m worried about us,” Trocheck said Tuesday when asked if he was excited for his old team.

He did admit he still gets “a little bit” of jump playing against the Panthers. It shows — Trocheck has seven goals and four assists in 10 games against Florida since coming to Carolina in a trade nearly two years ago on Feb. 24, 2020.

3. Wednesday’s game will be nationally broadcast on TNT, an opportunity for both teams to get the recognition they deserve based on their place in the standings.

In Canada, the peak of televised games is a spot on “Hockey Night in Canada.” For individual players, an interview between periods comes with a HNIC towel — a badge of honor among players, specifically Canadians.

There’s no keepsake towel on a TNT game, but there is a chance intermission panelist Wayne Gretzky will talk about you between periods.

“That would be pretty cool,” Hurricanes forward Steven Lorentz said with an even bigger grin than usual. “I didn’t really get to watch him play growing up, but I mean, it’s Wayne. So everybody knows who he is.

“I think just being here and playing on the national stage is cool. If he ever gave me a little shoutout, that’d be special, but I wouldn’t try to show it too much to try and stay professional.”

4. One player to watch is Jordan Staal. The captain has been his usual reliable self, but after getting an elusive goal in Boston he could be poised to get on the score sheet more.

The steady captain didn’t have much of a celebration after finally ending his 35-game goal drought with a redirection of defenseman Brady Skjei’s shot in the third period of the 6-0 win.

“Guys are coming to me in the pile, and we all thought I scored,” Skjei said Monday, “and I didn’t really know. I knew it hit something. And then right at the end, Jordan’s like, ‘I think I might’ve tipped that,’ and everyone went nuts on the bench and in the huddle.”

When I asked Skjei about Staal’s matter-of-fact reaction to finally getting the monkey off his back, he called him “a true professional” before being interrupted by a fire alarm that went off in PNC Arena.

“He’s gonna get hot,” Skjei joked about mentioning Staal and the alarm blaring in the background.

Even if he doesn’t score, his teammates aren’t worried about how big of a contribution he’ll make.

“If it’s one person I don’t worry about that kind of stuff, that’s Jordo,” linemate Jesper Fast said Tuesday. “He comes to work every day and he’s contributed in almost all aspects of the game too. He’s just so important to us and he’s been good even though he might not have scored as much as he would like. But he’s still doing so much good things out there.”

5. It’s less than five weeks from the trade deadline, but a couple of teams have already made their big moves.

Calgary acquired Tyler Toffoli this week from Montreal and he scored in his Flames debut. And in a different Wednesday night game, Jack Eichel will play both his first game of the season and first with the Golden Knights since being acquired by Vegas and rehabbing from neck surgery.

When the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, then-GM Jim Rutherford made a big early move by acquiring Doug Weight. Then when Erik Cole suffered a broken vertebrae at the hands of Brooks Orpik before the deadline, Rutherford reeled in Mark Recchi to round out the lineup.

Brind’Amour captained that team and has seen firsthand, both as a player and coach, how deadline additions adapt to their new surroundings. Brind’Amour’s preference?

“I think the earlier the better just because it gives that guy and the team time to assimilate and grow together a little bit,” Brind’Amour said. “When it’s late, sometimes it takes a little time. And you don’t really have time. That’s why some of those trades, I think, don’t work.

“So I would say the earlier is the better, and why wouldn’t you get better earlier? You get a better chance to get a better playoff position, all that stuff. But I understand it’s not easy to do that.”

Has he relayed his opinion to GM Don Waddell?

“I like my team. I like this team, so I’m not a big hurry to shake things up.”