RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sometimes it's little more than a footnote when a rookie scores his first goal in the middle of a season, particularly a call-up player.
But for one night, Carolina Hurricanes rookie Riley Nash had his moment. More accurately, he had several.
Nash, playing his 12th NHL game in his third professional season, had a point on three of the Hurricanes' first four goals, and Carolina buried the Florida Panthers, 6-2, Saturday night at PNC Arena.
The forward twice fed Jussi Jokinen for first-period goals during a three-minute flurry that gave the Hurricanes a 3-0 lead. Early in the second period, Nash finished a give-and-go with Patrick Dwyer to put Carolina ahead 4-1.
For Nash, who has scored no more than 14 goals in any of his three American Hockey League seasons, it was the kind of game that makes a rookie imagine the possibilities.
"It was just one night, so I'm hoping to keep it going over the course of some games, so then I realize maybe I can do it in the NHL," Nash said.
The former Edmonton Oilers first-round draft pick (2007, No. 21), thought he had his first goal in the bank a couple of shifts earlier, but he drilled one off the post from the slot.
"I thought it was going to be a pretty nice goal, probably my nicest goal all year in the AHL or here," said Nash, who smiled at the near miss. "So I was a little disappointed I didn't (get it), but that's all right. Jussi Jokinen and our line was going right out of the gates. Patty Dwyer was skating, so they made it really easy on me."
The mood was far more tense in the Florida locker room afterward. The Panthers, with an Eastern Conference-low six wins, lost goaltender Jose Theodore on the first shot of the game. After making a right-pad save on Jokinen, Theodore immediately fell face down in the crease. He was helped from the ice, unable to put any weight on his right leg. He was replaced by Scott Clemmensen.
The Panthers also lost defenseman Dmitry Kulikov in the second period. He appeared to catch a rut in the ice in his own zone and fell backward into the boards. He left the ice holding his right wrist.
Despite the injuries, Florida coach Kevin Dineen cut his team no slack.
"You can't blame it on injuries," Dineen said. "To me that's the ultimate cop-out.
"We were not prepared to play this game. It was a big divisional game against our first-place team, and it looked like from the drop of the puck that we weren't prepared, and that leads to injuries to a certain extent too. If you don't have your game face on, boy, it's a man's game out there."
For one night, the Hurricanes were able to shake some negative tendencies. The win marked their first in the Southeast Division after five losses. They also were the slowest-starting team in the NHL; in 19 games, they had scored eight first-period goals.
The three-goal outburst gave Carolina a rare bit of breathing room and might have allowed them to play a more inspired game.
"You ask anyone and they'll say you don't (play differently)," said defenseman Justin Faulk, who assisted on the opening goal. "But maybe when you're down, you're gripping your stick a little tighter than when you're up."
Sandwiched between Jokinen's two first-period goals was a score from Jiri Tlusty. Without a goal in his first nine games, Tlusty has scored in 10 of his past 11.
"It's a nice feeling when the puck is going in," Tlusty said. "But the better feeling is for the first time we beat a team in our division."
Jokinen's two goals helped him shake a season-long scoring slump. The former 30-goal scorer doubled his season total.
"For every goal-scorer, lots of times they come in bunches," Jokinen said. "Lots of it has to do with confidence. I think the biggest thing for me is I need to shoot more. Some other games I looked more for a pass, but getting two goals, I can get a little more confident and hopefully I can keep scoring."
Eric Staal, also historically a slow starter, cashed in with a pair of goals. The Hurricanes captain has 12 goals and 24 points through 20 games, and has been held off the score sheet five times.
On the heels of a convincing 4-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, the Hurricanes are playing with confidence -- not to mention plenty of scoring touch. They will try to build on the momentum Sunday in the second of this back-to-back at Florida.
"We have them again in their barn, and it's not going to be as easy as it was tonight," Tlusty said. "But we made a pretty good statement tonight that we can play 60 minutes of hockey pretty hard and it's tough to play against us."
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