With their first divisional victory of the season, the Carolina Hurricanes claimed sole possession of the Southeast Division lead for the first time.
Now the Hurricanes have an opportunity to extend their lead with another division win on Sunday when they visit the injury-plagued Florida Panthers in the back end of a home-and-home series.
Despite having a 10-3-1 record against the rest of the Eastern Conference, Carolina (11-8-1) lost its first five division contests by a combined 21-7 margin before beating the Panthers 6-2 on Saturday.
The Hurricanes’ third win in four games pushed them ahead of surging Winnipeg atop the Southeast. With the Jets idle on Sunday, Carolina can build a four-point cushion with a second straight win over the Panthers.
“If you’re going to be on top of your division, you have to beat the teams in your division,” coach Kirk Muller said. “We haven’t had success on that part of it this year. I think our guys knew that this is a big weekend and the importance of it.”
Florida has won eight of 10 at home in this series, but will likely be without goalie Jose Theodore after he left Saturday’s game in the first period with a lower-body injury.
“It’s going to be a while,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “He was pretty sore on the ice, and it wasn’t much better off (it).”
Scott Clemmensen made 27 saves in relief, but allowed all six goals and fell to 2-2-2 with a 4.31 goals-against average on the season. While he’s lost four of six lifetime starts against the Hurricanes, Clemmensen had 34 saves in a 4-1 win last April in his only home start in this series.
Clemmensen will have to find a way to contain a Carolina attack that has 10 goals in its last two games.
Leading scorer Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen each scored twice on Saturday, while Riley Nash netted his first goal as part of a three-point effort. Jiri Tlusty had his 10th goal in 11 games and Alexander Semin had three assists, giving him eight in his last four contests.
Carolina’s top line of Tlusty, Staal and Semin has combined for six goals and eight assists in the past two games.
Filip Kuba and Shawn Matthias, meanwhile, scored for the last-place Panthers (6-10-5), who lost for the ninth time in 11 games.
Defenseman Brian Campbell had two of the Panthers’ four first-period goals in a season-opening 5-1 win in the last meeting in Florida. He also had two goals and three assists in two games before failing to pick up a point on Saturday.
With the Hurricanes playing the second of back-to-back contests, it’s unclear who will start in goal on Sunday.
Cam Ward, who had 22 saves to beat the Panthers for only the second time in six starts, has played both ends of back-to-back nights once this season. He allowed six goals while earning consecutive road wins over the New York Islanders and New Jersey Feb. 11-12.
Dan Ellis, who is 3-2-0 with a 2.39 GAA, could get his sixth start. He’s won two of his three starts with a 2.55 GAA in Florida.