RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Carolina Hurricanes have climbed to the top of the Southeast Division in unusual fashion as the halfway point of the season approaches -- minus a victory over a division opponent and with an NHL-low eight first-period goals.
The Hurricanes overcame both trouble spots in a 6-2 win over injury-riddled Florida on Saturday night.
Jussi Jokinen scored two of three goals for the Hurricanes in a span of 3:05 in the first period and Eric Staal added two goals in the lopsided win, which was Carolina's first in six games against Southeast Division teams.
"We talked about ourselves and building off our last game (a 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh), but realistically the message was if we're going to be up top of the division we've got to beat the teams in our division and we hadn't had success on that part of it this year," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "Our guys knew this was a big weekend and the importance of it, and it showed in our play. We came out ready to go."
Jokinen, who had just four points this season and was switched to the wing on the third line for this game, added an assist on Riley Nash's first career goal early in the second period. Nash, who centered the line, also had a three-point night with assists on both of Jokinen's goals.
"I told him the breaks will come, the offense will come," Muller said of his talk with the veteran Jokinen at the morning skate. "I didn't know it would happen that quickly. He seems to have some chemistry with Nash and it's good to get him going."
Already without injured defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Mike Weaver and right winger Kris Versteeg, the Panthers got more bad news just 2:22 in when goalie Jose Theodore went down with what appeared to be a right leg or groin injury after making the first save of the game against Jokinen. Then, early in the second period, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov caught a rut and fell awkwardly to the ice, injuring a wrist or hand.
Theodore was helped from the ice in obvious pain and replaced by Scott Clemmensen, who was immediately peppered by a Carolina offense that had previously struggled in the first period through 19 games, registering just eight goals and leading once after the opening 20 minutes.
"As bad as we started that game ... you can blame it on injuries, but to me that's the ultimate cop-out," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "It looked like from the drop of the puck we weren't prepared. If you don't have your game face on, boy, it's a man's game out there."
Jokinen scored on a wrist shot four minutes after Clemmensen entered and added his fourth of the season midway through the first period after some sloppy defensive play by the Panthers as the Canes took a 11-2 shot advantage.
"Every time you get the lead it's easier to play and it was a big, big first period," said Jokinen, who led the Canes with five shots. "It's a little bit different playing on the wing. You are not necessarily thinking defense all the time. The biggest thing is I need to shoot more and in some other game I probably would have looked to pass more. I just kept shooting and it was good to get two goals and get some confidence."
Jiri Tlusty remained shot, scoring his 10th goal in the last 11 games to briefly tie Eric Staal for the team lead. Tlusty, wide open in the slot, notched his goal a little more than two minutes after Jokinen gave the Canes a 1-0 lead. Jokinen took a pass from Alexander Semin and cleanly beat Clemmensen.
"It's a nice feeling with the puck going in, but a better feeling is beating a team in our division," Tlusty said. "We've got them again Saturday night in their barn and it's not going to be as easy as it was tonight, but we made a pretty good statement with this game. We played some hard hockey for 60 minutes."
Staal scored in the second and third period to give him 12 goals to regain the team lead. Semin added three assists.
Shawn Matthias and Filip Kuba had Florida's goals, each coming in the final 2 1/2 minutes of the first and second period.
NOTES: This was the 500th regular season game for the Canes at PNC Arena. ... Nash, playing in his 12th career game, registered his first multi-point game. He also hit the post early in the second period. ... Joni Pitkanen returned after missing the last seven games with a lower body injury but left after the first period and did not return. The Carolina defenseman was a plus-8 in 14 games before missing two weeks. ... Ed Jovanovski hasn't dressed for Florida's defensive corps since Jan. 29, missing his 15th straight game with a knee injury. ... Versteeg skated Saturday morning in Raleigh but didn't dress for the Panthers, missing his eighth game with a lower body injury. ... Only four other goaltenders (Roy, Brodeur, Kolzig and Hasek) have played more career games against Carolina than Theodore's 40. ... The Panthers used both Theodore and Clemmensen for the third straight game.