RALEIGH --Ray Whitney didn't need long to reward his friends and neighbors in attendance for his return to Carolina.
Whitney scored the first goal of the game at 2:18 of the first period, then added an assist on the game-winner as the Phoenix Coyotes overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Hurricanes 4-3 at the RBC Center on Wednesday.
Whitney, who signed a two-year deal with Phoenix prior to the 2010-11 season, was making his return to Carolina after five seasons in Raleigh that included a 2006 Stanley Cup. A large contingent of his friends made plenty of noise in support of the ex-Hurricane.
"Getting that first one, that was a relief for me," Whitney said. "I think there were 91 people. I looked in the crowd and saw another 20 or 30 people I recognized, easily."
After the opening goal -- Whitney's second power-play tally in two nights after scoring in a 2-1 win at Florida on Tuesday -- it looked like his return might be spoiled by the Hurricanes.
Tuomo Ruutu tied the game before the first intermission, netting the rebound of an Alexei Ponikarovsky shot. Carolina then caught a couple breaks in the second period, beginning when Andreas Nodl scored from the slot after an awkward bounce off a dump-in. The Hurricanes went up 3-1 when Jiri Tlusty's seemingly harmless shot from the wing slipped under Phoenix goaltender Jason LaBarbera.
"I took my eye off of it," admitted LaBarbera, who stopped 34 shots in the absence of injured starter Mike Smith, who was hurt during the third period of Tuesday's win at Florida. "I saw the guy on the wing, and I glanced over to see who was coming down the middle and I lost the puck. But after that, you need to stay focused and make your plays when you have the chance."
The rest of the Coyotes did their part, with three unanswered goals.
"We hung around," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "Even after the second period, I heard our guys talking. We felt like we had a chance to win the game."
It was the Coyotes' first win in 13 games this season when trailing after two periods (1-11-1). Carolina had been 9-0-2 when entering the third period with the lead.
The comeback started with Cal O'Reilly, who cut the deficit to 3-2 with second goal of the season. O'Reilly cut across the slot on his forehand and slipped an against-the-grain shot over the glove of Carolina goaltender Cam Ward.
"The way he had his stick, that was my only shot -- to pull it in and get it up," O'Reilly said. "It's a shot that you can catch goalies with sometimes if you get it in the right spot."
The rest of the effort was orchestrated by Lauri Korpikoski. With the Coyotes trailing 3-2 entering the third period, Korpikoski set up Rostislav Klesla for his first goal of the season at 4:20. Then Derek Morris circled the Carolina net and found Korpikoski at the top of the crease for his ninth of the season at 10:48 to give the Coyotes their second win in as many nights.
"(Morris) had great patience, coming behind the net," Korpikoski said. "I kind of whacked at it once it came in there. I think it hit somebody and it went high, but I'll take it."
The Hurricanes (10-19-6) have yet to find much magic in the Kirk Muller coaching era. The team is just 2-6-2 under the new coach, and the players can feel the season slipping away.
“We’ve got to find a way to find that killer instinct and not feel sorry for ourselves and not show up,” said captain Eric Staal, who has just four goals in his last 29 games. “When it’s not happening you need someone to step up and I wasn’t there tonight -- and nobody else was either."
Like most struggling teams, the Hurricanes found it difficult to hang on to the lead.
"When Phoenix got that second goal, you could see our body language, and the team kind of dropped their energy," Muller said. "We’ve got to get away from that. We have to get mentally tougher."
It's a far different era in Carolina than the one Whitney remembers. For one night anyway, the fond memories continued for the 39-year-old, who now has 12 goals and 32 points in 34 games this season.
"In warmup, coming out seeing the familiar faces and the signs, it made you feel like you did something good when you were here," Whitney said. "It makes you think this is home; it will be home when I'm done. But for now I will continue with what I'm doing."
If he can keep playing at this level, his retirement to North Carolina might have to wait. In the meantime, one thing won't change.
"I love it here," he said.