RBC CENTER (RALEIGH)—After losing his NHL coaching debut, Kirk Muller was all smiles.

But with bloodshot eyes.

Cam Ward couldnt deliver a win for coach Kirk Mullers first game. The Florida Panthers prevailed, 3-1.
  • File photo by Rob Rowe
  • Cam Ward couldn’t deliver a win for coach Kirk Muller’s first game. The Florida Panthers prevailed, 3-1.

“Honestly, I was really pleased,” Muller said after his Carolina Hurricanes lost 3-1 to the division-leading Florida Panthers on Tuesday. “We just asked them this morning to bring a good competitive part of your game tonight. We added a couple things, a little change in the system to be a little more aggressive and up ice. So you don’t have any time to really practice it. I thought they really did their part.”

“We didn’t get the bounce, but they played hard.”

Shawn Matthias, however, did get the bounce, banking a shot off Cam Ward’s side to break a 1-1 tie with just over three minutes remaining and added an empty-net goal for Florida. Jose Theodore saved all but one of Carolina’s 27 shots on goal.

Jeff Skinner tallied the Canes’ only goal, his 10th of the season. Ward stopped 18 of 20 Florida shots, including a penalty shot by Jack Skille early in the third period. Carolina failed to score on four power plays in the game.

Expectations are high that Muller can do something about Carolina’s impotence with the man advantage. His unit in Montreal was always quick and intense, something that a Canes power play could never have been accused of being. Still, Muller kept his finger firmly on a positive note.

“We gotta work on it. I want to be positive, but there’s lots of things we can do to work on it and change it. You know, even if you don’t score on it, your power play can really give you momentum. And the tough thing tonight is that five-on-five we were going so well, but the power play didn’t create any momentum for us. We need more net presence. We’re really out of synch. But that’s stuff we can work on and it’ll get better.”

In many ways, Muller changed nothing in this game from his predecessor, preferring to evaluate the team before tinkering with it. Line combinations were the same, aside from newcomer Andreas Nodl—claimed on waivers earlier in the day—taking Brent Sutter’s place on the fourth line. But shifts were definitely shorter.

Staal’s line took the opening face-off and skated off before the 30-second mark. Then Sutter’s line finished their shift before the game was a minute old. Muller was trying to jump-start this team.

“I thought the way our guys played for the first couple periods, they really push-pushed. But to play this game, to play this way, you have to have a high tempo. In the third, it tested some of our guys to keep that tempo. And that’s what we need—for 60 minutes, to keep that high tempo.”

Some players really responded to the acceleration. Brandon Sutter’s line looked feisty, jumping into the corners with gusto. Midway through the period, Sutter took control of a puck and walked into the low circle, drawing a fronting Theodore, but when he slid the puck across the slot to Dwyer by the yawning far side of the net, the puck eluded Dwyer’s stick.

A couple shifts later Sutter dug in behind the net to retain a puck as a Florida defender flew by, leaned wide and shoveled a backhand pass into the slot to catch a streaking Skinner who had just bolted onto the ice from the bench. Skinner’s one-timer pegged Theodore’s body and blocker for a purely positional save.

But as the press crew filed out of the locker room, we had to step over the feet of Sutter. Drenched with sweat, he was leaning against the cinder block wall with a towel around his neck. Had Sutter been a cartoon, his tongue might have been hanging out of his mouth.

Derek Joslin who, as the unenviable “seventh defenseman,” has been in and out of the lineup, also ramped up his effort in a bid to impress the new coach. Late in the first period, Joslin collapsed Florida’s leading scorer Kris Versteeg with a forearm shiver in front of the Carolina net when Versteeg tried to deke him. It was a moment reminiscent of that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones exasperatedly shoots the acrobatic swordsman in the bazaar. But Joslin bloodied Versteeg’s mouth and faces a disciplinary hearing with the league via conference call.

Florida scored first on their first power play midway through the second period. On the opening face-off of the power play, Stephen Weiss beat Sutter back to Brian Campbell, who walked to the center point and threw back to Tomas Fleischmann for a big slapshot. Cam Ward folded around the shot. Then the exact same sequence occurred but for the final event—Fleischmann’s slapper clanged off the crossbar and in as Versteeg screened Ward. It was Fleischmann’s eleventh goal of the season.

Barely a minute later, however, the Canes tied it.

After Joni Pitkanen dumped the puck, Eric Staal retrieved it and walked toward the corner, drawing the defender to make room for a pass. He flicked a perfect pass out of the corner to Skinner coming into slot. Skinner’s first shot was saved but he pulled the puck off Theodore’s pad and drifted to his glove side, holding off Erik Gudbranson to punch it home.

The game shifted into a hypnotic skating exhibition for the remainder of the second and the first seven minutes of the third, until Pitkanen hauled Skille down on a breakaway to give him an unquestionable penalty shot opportunity. Skille closed slowly on Ward and tried to wrist it between the goaltender’s legs but Ward easily closed the door, if it was ever really open.

For the remainder of the game, the intensity level ratcheted up. With six minutes left, Fleischmann nearly potted another goal after a gift puck popped into the crease. Ward had slid entirely out of the net to stifle Weiss at the post. But Justin Faulk jabbed the puck clear out of Fleischmann’s skates before he could chop it into the open net.

Seconds later, Theodore stopped a great tip chance on the doorstep as Sutter redirected a knee-high shot on net with the curve of his stick blade.

Matthias’ winner came with just 3:19 left to deflate a sparse but hopeful crowd. High in the zone, Tomas Kopecky saw that Tomas Kaberle had drifted into no-man’s land in the empty slot, leaving Matthias all alone to Ward’s glove side. Matthias took the quick pass and shoved it at Ward, who tried to close against the post. Instead, he banged the puck into the net with his side.

Matthias added an insurance goal when Alexei Ponikarovsky flubbed an uncontested puck at center ice after Ward had been pulled for the extra attacker. It was a play that betrayed the kind of fatigue that Muller ferreted out with his high-tempo game.

Carolina hosts two hot teams this week—the New York Rangers on Thursday and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday—before embarking on a West coast trip.