Florida’s Nathan Horton brought the Cats within one, but Matt Cullen lobbed an empty-netter in from the boards and sealed the game for the Hurricanes, giving his team the payback that they badly needed. Florida single-handedly decided Carolina’s postseason fate last year, and the ‘Canes have five more games against the Panthers to do what they can in returning the favor.

The ‘Canes miraculously escaped the night without any major injuries to important players. Bryan McCabe’s status is unknown after he made an attempt at Dennis Seidenberg and hit the boards awkwardly. (Perhaps the injury bug has passed? Or, instead, it is now contagious?)

Ray Whitney was named the first star of the game after scoring his 200th point as a Hurricane, not exactly ‘offensive-minded” defenseman Tim Gleason tallied three assists, and Frank Kaberle showed the ‘Canes staff why they’ve kept him around this long to the tune of two assists. Zero-to-hero Dan LaCouture, the feel-good story of the early season, wound up with the game winner in his first game with Carolina.

‘He worked hard to get himself back into this position, and he got an opportunity to step in,” Laviolette said of LaCouture after the game. ‘He does whatever you’ve asked of him, and everyone’s happy to see him score a goal.”

The ‘Canes allowed two power play goals, which was a concern, but Laviolette strayed from last year’s formula of veteran penalty killers and went with the largely untested Brandon Sutter, who played 3:37 short-handed.

‘(The Penalty Kill) certainly could have been better, but it was the first game of the season,” Sutter said. ‘We’ll take the win.”

One of those power play goals went to Cory Stillman, a former Hurricane with a bone to pick. Stillman also assisted on Horton’s goal.

Cam Ward was sound in net, but not exceptional, allowing four goals on 33 shots. He said that he hopes to get the start tomorrow night, but there is a good chance that Caniacs will see backup goaltender Michael Leighton in his ‘official” No. 2 debut. Leighton had a brief stint with the Hurricanes last season while John Grahame took his place in the minors.

The Hurricanes will face 2008 Stanley Cup Winners Detroit on Monday night at home, when fans will see their gothic third jerseys up close and personal for the first time. The team will then head off on a 6-game road trip in order to get out of the way of the State Fair.