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Khudobin makes 34 saves as Hurricanes top Panthers

by Kurt Dusterberg

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Carolina Hurricanes have spent the new year relying on a simple strategy: Lean on goaltender Anton Khudobin.

Khudobin was sharp again on Friday, stopping 34 shots in a 5-1 victory against the Florida Panthers that improved his record in 2014 to 11-4-0 in 15 starts. The Hurricanes (26-21-9) have won seven of their past 10 games and are three points out of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

"He's unbelievable," said defenseman Brett Bellemore, who scored the last of Carolina's three first-period goals. "We have a good trust in him. If we mess up or if the puck gets through somehow, he's there to bail us out."

The Hurricanes entered the game with just 26 first-period goals, but they jumped to a 3-1 lead against the Panthers, who lost 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings at home on Thursday.

"We knew they were playing back-to-back so we knew we had to get on them early," Khudobin said. "It gives us good confidence in the game."

Carolina's first two goals came on shots from the high slot. Tuomo Ruutu held the puck in along the boards and centered to Riley Nash, who beat Florida goaltender Tim Thomas under the crossbar for his eighth of the season at 9:17. Alexander Semin made it 2-0 at 10:44. The Hurricanes worked the puck around the offensive zone before Andrej Sekera's shot popped out to Semin, who scored for the eighth time in his past 10 games.

"After Carolina scored the second one was when we first started to skate," Florida coach Peter Horachek said. "I think we were standing still for the most part. They were coming into the zone, we weren't moving our feet, we weren't defending."

The Panthers made it 2-1 at 15:30 on Nick Bjugstad's 13th of the season. After a Dylan Olsen shot from the point, Bjugstad's second-chance bid appeared to be stopped by Khudobin, but the puck trickled past his stick side.

Carolina pushed the lead back to two after a hard-working forecheck kept the Panthers hemmed in their zone. With Florida unable to gain possession, the puck squirted loose to Bellemore, who blasted a shot from inside the top of the circle at 18:21 for his second of the season.

"It's a little bit more fun when you're playing with the lead," Nash said. "In this league, it's hard to come back every night, so it was especially important."

In the second period, the Hurricanes picked up where they left off. After Florida turned the puck over, Thomas stopped Eric Staal, but the rebound fell behind him to Jiri Tlusty, who tapped it in at 4:36. That spelled the end of the night for Thomas, who was replaced by Scott Clemmensen. He finished with 10 saves on 14 shots.

The Panthers did generate some good scoring chances, but Khudobin was sharp. He made three quality stops on Scottie Upshall, and he stopped a Bjugstad breakaway early in the third period coming across the crease. Khudobin lowered his goals-against average to 2.09 and boosted his save percentage to .930.

Sekera contributed the final goal at 12:48 of the third period, threading a shot through bodies for the team's second power-play goal in the past seven games. The power play has been a point of emphasis for the Hurricanes, who are 28th in the NHL with the man advantage.

"We don't want to complicate it," said Sekera, whose nine goals and 32 points are career highs. "We want bodies in front, we want to get shots through. I saw there was a screen in front, so I shot it. Simple play."

Florida (22-29-7) heads into the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics having lost five of six. With the team falling from playoff contention, Horachek was poised but direct in his assessment of the team's commitment level.

"It's disappointing to see where our expectations are," he said. "I think we have to expect more from each other because that's certainly not desperate hockey."

Horachek was not pleased with the team's effort against Detroit, when Florida had just eight shots through two periods. The Panthers' response on Friday left him frustrated.

"I expect them to play hard on a daily basis," said Horachek, who was named interim coach on Nov. 8, replacing Kevin Dineen. "Not once in a while. Not every three or four games. There's too many guys that don't think that's the most important thing that has to happen. They've got to play for jobs, they've got to play for pride."

The Panthers return to action Feb. 27 on the road against the Washington Capitals. Carolina hosts the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night before heading to the break.

Hurricanes defenseman John-Michael Liles left the game with a lower-body injury in the third period and did not return.

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