RALEIGH — The Hurricanes and Penguins entered Sunday’s game as the NHL’s two hottest teams.
Carolina came in with points in 10 straight, while Pittsburgh had won seven in a row. And both teams had also surged to the rear bumper of the Devils, who a few weeks ago had been deemed to be “running away” with the Metropolitan Division.
So it should come as no surprise that the teams entered the third period tied with a goal apiece.
The Hurricanes saw two familiar names connect for a go-ahead Penguins goal, but Carolina’s captain served some revenge of his own against the team that drafted him.
Jordan Staal won a puck battle in the corner to help set up the tying goal, and then just over five minutes later he finished off the Hurricanes’ comeback by scoring with 6:27 remaining to give Carolina a 3-2 win in front of 18,117 Sunday at PNC Arena.
“He had a great third period and was, I think, the best player maybe in the game,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
The win improved the Hurricanes to 19-6-6 with 44 points, tying them with New Jersey.
“We’ve played really, really well,” Brind’Amour added. “And that’s indicative of where we’re at.”
At first, it looked like longtime Hurricanes winger Brock McGinn would keep the Penguins’ winning streak alive.
After an ill-advised drop by Carolina’s Seth Jarvis, Pittsburgh’s Kasperi Kapanen — the son of longtime Hurricanes player Sami — turned up ice with McGinn on a 2-on-1. McGinn’s one-timer beat Carolina goalie Pyotr Kochetkov (24 saves) for his ninth goal of the season and the Penguins’ first lead of the game at 5:03 of the third.
But Carolina — led by Staal — had an answer.
First, the Hurricanes captain was shoved to the ice by defenseman Kris Letang in the corner of the offensive zone. But Staal kept the puck in his range and got back to his feet to occupy two Penguins defenders.
“I was breathing through my eyelids at that point,” Staal said of being tired at the end of his shift, “and I was just trying to get it in their end.”
Derek Stepan collected the loose puck and got it to Brady Skjei at the point, and his shot found its way through Staal’s screen and past Pittsburgh goalie Casey DeSmith (26 saves) to tie the game at 8:17 of the third.
“It was 11? That makes sense,” Skjei said of Staal having the screen on the goal. “He’s usually there. He’s a big body, so I’m not surprised their goalie couldn’t see that one.”
Then Staal gave his current team the lead for good over his former one.
Jordan Martinook and Staal changed places behind the Penguins’ net, and Staal followed a similar script by getting the puck to Skjei at the point. But the defenseman misfired on the one-timer, and the puck fluttered to Jesper Fast in the right circle.
Fast quickly spun and sent the puck across the goal mouth, and Staal was on the other side to knock in the go-ahead goal.
For good measure, Staal won four defensive zone faceoffs against counterpart Sidney Crosby with an extra Penguins attacker on the ice in the final 72 seconds, sealing the win.
“He was not doing very well in faceoffs all game,” Brind’Amour said of Staal, who had lost 10 of 15 before winning the last four. “You just keep throwing him out there and you know that when it counts, Jordo’s gonna come up big.”
Before the playoff-esque third period, the teams traded goals in the second period.
Carolina got on the board first when its fourth line did solid work below the goal line and eventually got the puck to Stepan, who shot to the short side and beat DeSmith to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead at 3:35 of the middle frame.
It was Stepan’s second goal of the season, both coming in the last three games after he was held without a goal in the season’s first 24.
“The bounces are starting to come and the confidence is there,” Stepan said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the league. When it goes away from you it’s hard to fight it back, and then when the floodgates open, it just pours. And it hasn’t changed throughout my entire career.”
The Penguins tied the game on their fourth power play of the night.
With Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin in the penalty box for delay of game, Pittsburgh needed just five seconds to score as Rickard Rakell tipped an Evgeni Malkin shot past Kochetkov to tie the game at 12:20 of the second.
The Hurricanes’ surge up the standings coincided with Kochetkov’s arrival.
The 23-year-old Russian improved to 9-1-4 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
“He’s been really good for us,” Stepan said, “and I don’t think it’s any secret the poise he has and the talent he has.”
Notes: Malkin was held without a shot on goal for the second time this season and just the fifth time in the last 72 games. … Stepan had his first two-point game since a 7-1 win in Boston on Jan. 18 of last season. … Slavin now has three penalties on the season, all puck over the glass infractions.