RALEIGH, N.C. -- No one said it in so many words, but the Carolina Hurricanes must be breathing an enormous sigh of relief.
After starting the season with a 5-1 clunker at the Florida Panthers and 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the home opener, Carolina was desperate for some proof its revamped offense was everything it was cracked up to be.
After a solid but tentative first period against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night, the Hurricanes got all the evidence they needed.
After Skinner found the net with a top-shelf backhander early in the second period, the Hurricanes seemed to come to life playing with their first lead of the season.
"You could just see the tension go away from our guys," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "They started to relax and play. It's nice playing with the lead."
Staal said, "It was nice to see [Skinner] get that first one and get the building going and ease the guys a little bit."
Carolina had a two-goal lead within three minutes, getting a little puck luck from defenseman Justin Faulk.
With the Hurricanes shorthanded, Jordan Staal blocked a diagonal pass that led to a 3-on-1. Faulk carried the puck up ice and beat Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth with a low shot. After nearly two-and-a-half games marked by near misses, Carolina cashed in on a fluky one.
"I was trying to pick a spot," Faulk said tentatively before smiling. "My stick broke and it went in the net. It wasn't necessarily the spot I was going for, but it fooled him."
The Sabres scored a pair of goals less than two minutes apart to tie the game. Cody Hodgson cleaned up a long rebound from Jordan Leopold's shot from the right point, followed by a pretty score from Jason Pominville. Christian Ehrhoff fired to the slot, where Pominville from his knees reached out to redirect the puck past goalie Cam Ward.
Ward buckled down after that, making several key saves, particularly in the third period. He finished with 30.
After giving up six first-period goals in the previous two games, his solid night was exactly what Muller was looking for.
"We kind of challenged the guys yesterday, starting with Cam," Muller said. "It was great to see how he responded."
Skinner scored his second of the night on a wraparound, to give the Hurricanes a 3-2 lead, but the spotlight quickly shifted to Eric Staal. On the ensuing faceoff, he took a pass from Jamie McBain and slid a backhander under Enroth.
The two goals came nine seconds apart.
Thomas Vanek set up Pominville's second goal with a beautiful behind-the-back pass to cut the Carolina lead to 4-3, but Eric Staal who answered. He one-timed a pass from Joni Pitkanen to give the Hurricanes a little breathing room -- and some proof that the offense could carry play.
"We've got good enough players and good skill," Staal said. "We just need to play the right way, more physical and aggressive 1-on-1, and we did a good job of that tonight."
He put the finishing touches on the game with an empty netter, giving him 13 hat tricks for his career. Only Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks has more among active players with 20.
"Our first period was better," Staal said. "We competed harder in the one on one battles, paid more of a price in front of Cam, blocked some shots. It kind of builds momentum."
The Sabres absorbed their first loss of the season after opening with wins against the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I think it was a combination of youth," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I know that Cody (Hodgson) could make better plays. He did a great job keeping the puck turned up and then we ended up turning the puck over. If you don't take care of the puck, it can go the other way on you."
The teams move on to Buffalo on Friday night to complete a home-and-home series at First Niagara Center. When the Hurricanes hit the ice, they might do it with a little more confidence.
"It's taken a couple games to get our legs and play the style we want," Muller said. "It looked like tonight we're finally getting into the mix and playing that tempo. If we can do that, I think we can wear some teams down. We have to be a 60-minute team."
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