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Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Staal, Skinner lead Carolina to 5-3 Win over Florida Panthers

Staaldraft HURRICANES 5, PANTHERS 3

Eric Staal very easily could have been playing for the Florida Panthers had the team not traded the top pick of the 2003 Draft to Pittsburgh. The Penguins didn't take Staal either as he slipped to the Carolina Hurricanes with the second selection.

And even though things worked out for Pittsburgh – they got a Stanley Cup winning goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury out of it -- the Hurricanes have been thanking both teams for passing on Staal ever since.

Staal, passed over by the Panthers in favor of then now-departed Nathan Horton, helped do in Florida again Friday as he scored the go-ahead goal in Carolina's come-from-behind 5-3 win at BankAtlantic Center.

Florida has now coughed up two goal leads in each of its past three games against the Hurricanes. On Monday, the Panthers survived by winning in overtime. Carolina has a history of turning Florida leads upside down and Friday was no different. Staal has been a big part of those comeback stories against the Panthers over the years.

Staal, Carolina's 26-year-old captain, has 13 goals in 46 games against the Panthers as the Hurricanes are 28-16-2 against Florida since Staal burst into the league in 2003.

Do the Hurricanes feel pretty confident when playing the Panthers based on their history?

“You think? Yeah, I would say so,'' center Stephen Weiss said. “It's a matter of us playing the same way. We fall asleep at the wheel, miss assignments and give them easy goals to let them back into the game. You could say any team plays better desperate.''

Jeff Skinner, whom the Panthers bypassed in the most recent draft, scored Carolina's first two goals of the night and assisted on Erik Cole's insurance goal late in the third. Florida picked defenseman Erik Gudbranson with the third overall pick in June; Skinner – who is Carolina's center of the present and future with 13 goals and 18 assists in 40 games – was the seventh overall pick.

Skinner, who has three goals and four assists in five games against the Panthers this year, erased Florida's early 2-0 lead with a pair in the second. Skinner's first came 1:46 into the second and his next one bounced off a Florida defender before bouncing over the head of goalie Tomas Vokoun to tie it nine minutes later.

“He's a really skilled player and when he has the puck, he's got some moves,'' Florida's Chris Higgins said. “It's tough to play against him. He backs our defenders back because of his one-on-one moves and it's obvious he can finish.''

The Panthers led 1:36 in after David Booth took the puck from behind the net and wheeled around it, poking the puck past backup goalie Justin Peters. Marty Reasoner made it 2-0 with 7:30 left in the first when he deflected a long shot from Dennis Wideman. Carolina narrowly missed out on getting on the board in the first, most notably when Wideman saved Vokoun by diving into the crease and smothering a puck heading into the net. Wideman slid the puck across the ice like he was an Olympic curler.

Carolina wouldn't be denied too many other times, however. The two were tied going into the third, with Staal breaking the stalemate when he picked up a loose pick and let a wrister fly from the slot with 10:26 left. Erik Cole all but ended it when he scored with three minutes remaining, although Florida did add a late goal when Reasoner got his second of the night with 38 seconds left.

The Panthers, who have lost two straight, now get to face a well-rested Washington team on Saturday night. The Capitals, no doubt, haven't forgotten how Florida beat them 3-0 on home ice last month. Washington has played twice this month; the Panthers will be playing their fifth game in seven days.

“You could see us getting fatigued in the second,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “That's tough. Fatigue set in and we started making some mental errors and momentum shifted. In the third, your best players have to take over, whether your goalie makes a save or one of your big guys – Weiss or Booth – scores. Staal, their big guy, delivered.''

NEWS, NOTES

Even though DeBoer said he wanted to put Wednesday's controversial non-goal behind him, it was still the topic of conversation Friday morning.

The Panthers were trailing Atlanta 3-2 in the third period on Wednesday when Bryan McCabe's shot went across the goal line and got lodged in the goal cage. The on-ice officials didn't call for a video review and by the time officials in Toronto saw the play it was too late to do anything about it. Florida ended up losing 3-2.

One of those officials – Marc Joannette – worked Friday's game.

“It doesn't help thinking about it. It's in the past,'' Vokoun said. “We still have lots of games left. That game didn't eliminate us from the playoffs or anything like that. For me, even if we won, today is a new day.''

Said DeBoer: “It's one of those things you look at down the road if you miss [the playoffs] by a point, a what if? But the season is full of those type of things.''

-- Winger Evgeny Dadonov didn't participate in the full morning skate because of his sore ankle, but he was in the lineup Friday. Dadonov missed Wednesday's game.

-- DeBoer on the controversy surrounding Tony Sparano and the Miami Dolphins (before word leaked of Sparano's contract extension): “This is a tough business. When you take these jobs – and there's only 30 of them in the NHL and 32 in the NFL – you sign up for that. You feel for him as part of the coaching fraternity and we've all been there. It's never easy, but it's part of the job and you know that coming in.''

SATURDAY: PANTHERS AT CAPITALS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; Verizon Center, Washington
TV/Radio: FSNF; 640 WFTL
The series: Capitals lead 45-39-5
The game: After losing all six meetings to the Capitals last season, the Panthers came back with a vengeance and shut out Washington 3-0 on Dec. 9. This is only the second time these two have met this season, although Washington visits Sunrise on Tuesday. Washington has only played twice this month, beating Pittsburgh in the New Year's Winter Classic and losing 1-0 to Tampa Bay in overtime on Tuesday.

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