RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -The first time Cam Ward got hurt this season, the Carolina Hurricanes had a hard time winning. This time around, they can't lose.
Joni Pitkanen scored the go-ahead goal, and Manny Legace made 19 saves to help Carolina beat the Florida Panthers 4-1 on Tuesday night.
It was the Hurricanes' third straight victory since Ward, their starting goalie, was sidelined with a back injury. Carolina has allowed only five goals in those three games.
"There's more confidence in the room than there's been all year," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "We're getting good goaltending."
Matt Cullen had a goal and two assists, and Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen also scored for Carolina. While the Hurricanes remain near the bottom of the NHL standings, they're playing their best hockey with seven wins in their last nine games.
"There's still a chance (of making the playoffs), so we're battling every time we get on the ice," Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason said. "We're having fun. We have no pressure here, and we're just playing as hard as we can."
Cory Stillman scored the lone goal for Florida, which has lost four in a row.
"We're in a tough stretch," Florida coach Peter DeBoer said. "You have to keep working until you get it. That's the key to this league - the lows can't be low, and the highs can't be too high. We're in a low part and we have to fight our way out of it."
The Panthers have scored only four goals in their losing streak to lose ground in the chase for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Tomas Vokoun made several nice saves for the Panthers, making 26 stops in his 19th straight start.
"Your best players have to be your best players," DoBoer said. "You can't have five or six of your top eight or nine forwards go 10, 15, 20 games with only a goal or two. You're not going to win in this league with that."
The Hurricanes took advantage of a deflection to take the lead late in the second period. Pitkanen's shot from inside the blue line brushed off the skate of Florida's Gregory Campbell and changed directions enough to fool Vokoun.
Cullen added an insurance goal early in the third. After taking a nice breakout pass from Gleason, Cullen skated in on Vokoun and dragged the puck behind him, hesitating long enough to open up space beside Vokoun's left pad.
Ruutu added an empty-net goal for Carolina.
Legace won his second game since Ward injured his back. Justin Peters also won his first career NHL start on Saturday as the Hurricanes' goalies have taken advantage of improved team defense.
"It's night and day - night and day," Legace said, assessing the defense. "That's just hard work and believing in each other."
After a quiet first period, the teams generated a number of quality chances in the second.
Jokinen extended his points streak to seven games and got the Hurricanes on the scoreboard first, cleaning up Staal's rebound for a power-play goal. Carolina entered the game having scored on only two of its previous 25 attempts with a man advantage.
Florida tied it when Stephen Weiss set up Stillman with a perfect cross-ice pass. Stillman, who won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006, collected the puck in front of the net and quickly knocked it past Legace.
Ruutu returned after missing 15 games with an upper-body injury. He was injured while fighting Colorado's Darcy Tucker on Jan. 8.
NOTES: The NHL announced Tuesday that Carolina will open the 2010-11 season in Helsinki, Finland, against the Minnesota Wild. ... Gleason took a puck off the face in the second period. He received 12 stitches and returned to the game. ... New York Jets coach Rex Ryan was at the game.