"Like you see, there's not a big difference on the ice between [our] two teams," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said of the race for first place. "Both teams are playing really well and not giving much, playing tight games.
"All five games [against the Hurricanes] have been tight. All the other games are going to be tight, too. We've just got to find a way to win those. We've been close, but not been able to find a way except one time."
Continuing his hot streak since returning to the lineup, Barkov, who has played in the last three games after missing six due to a lower-body injury, opened the scoring for the Panthers when he cut into the slot and beat Petr Mrazek on a rebound to make it 1-0 at 11:19 of the first period.
In the second period, Vincent Trocheck evened things up for the Hurricanes when he deflected a shot past Sergei Bobrovsky to make it 1-1 at 18:03. Needing a second look to see if the puck had bounced off Trocheck's glove instead of his stick, the play was reviewed and then upheld.
Breaking the tie in the blink of an eye, Barkov - who else? - put the Panthers back on top just 27 seconds after Trocheck's score when he teed up a passed from Carter Verhaeghe, dropped to one knee and blasted home a one-timer from the right circle to make it a 2-1 game at 18:30.
Helping the Cats carry a lead into the second intermission, Bobrovsky made several highlight-reel saves in the middle frame, including an eye-popping stop in which he stretched out his left pad just in the nick of time to rob Jesper Fast of what looked to be pretty much a surefire goal.
Bobrovsky finished with 31 saves, while Mrazek stopped 34 shots of his own.
Video: FLA@CAR: Bobrovsky makes terrific pad save on Fast
With their late power play carrying over into the third period, the Hurricanes then quickly pulled even when Dougie Hamilton floated a long shot toward the net that was tipped in by Trocheck to get the contest all square at 2-2 just 45 seconds after the puck had dropped in the final stanza.
Netting what would hold up as the game-winning goal, Jordan Staal had a shot squeak through Bobrovsky's pads before it was tapped across the goal line to send Carolina ahead 3-2 at 8:52. Putting the game away, Staal and Fast then each scored late empty-net goals to make it 5-2.
"We had a lot of good things going," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "At 2-2, we were still in a pretty good spot there. A tough one on the third [goal] after that. It was a hard-fought game. I thought we had a chance to go up by a couple there early in the game, but didn't get it. It was still anybody's game. We had our turns; they had their turns. The last couple games against them could've gone either way, and we were on the short end of it. They're a good hockey team."
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday's loss in Raleigh…
1. BARKOV BLASTS TWO
Was Barkov actually injured or just getting some cybernetic enhancements installed?
I'm beginning to wonder.
Breaking the ice in Raleigh, the Panthers captain showed off his otherworldly hockey sense when he followed up on a shot from MacKenzie Weegar, dashed into the slot and backhanded the ensuing rebound into the cage to make it a 1-0 game at 11:19 of the opening period.
Video: FLA@CAR: Barkov elevates backhand home from slot
In three games since returning to action, Barkov has tallied three goals and two assists.
"He's an unbelievable player," Panthers forward Mason Marchment said of Barkov. "Honestly, he might be my favorite player. It's pretty awesome to play with him. He's a hell of a player."
Finding the back of the net once again, Barkov showed off his new and improved one-timer for the second straight game. Taking a pass from Verhaeghe, he ripped a scorching shot from the right circle into the twine to give the Panthers a 2-1 advantage at 18:30 of the second period.
Video: FLA@CAR: Barkov buries one-timer for 2nd goal of game
"It's been like two games in a row now with the one-timer," said Barkov, who is now tied for first on the team in scoring with 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists). "I trained with [Columbus forward Patrik] Laine the whole summer, so I got to see him shoot his one-timer. Obviously it's not the same, but I still think I got better at that."
2. WEEGAR GETS MORE
Another game, another point for Weegar.
By utilizing his high-level skating ability to jump in on offense and create the rebound that led to the aforementioned goal for Barkov, the 27-year-old defenseman extended his point streak to three games. During that nice little stretch of time, he's accumulated one goal and four assists.
Stepping up with Aaron Ekblad sidelined for the rest of the season, Weegar also posted six hits while skating a team-high 22:08 against Carolina. Already setting a career-high with 24 points (three goals, 21 assists), his 23 even-strength points are tied for first among NHL defensemen.
Bringing a combination of skill and physicality to all three zones, Florida led 12-6 in shots and 2-0 in goals when Weegar was on the ice at 5-on-5 tonight, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
3. VERHAEGHE'S DISHES
With two more assists tonight, Verhaeghe continues to pile up the points.
Already sitting third on the Panthers in scoring with a career-high 35 points - including a team-leading 17 goals - the 25-year-old forward has recorded 11 points (five goals, six assists) over his last seven games, including racking up four multi-point performances during that hot stretch.
Doing the majority of his damage at 5-on-5, he currently ranks tied for fifth in the NHL in points at even-strength with 32. Coming seemingly out of nowhere to become a big contributor for the Cats, that number places him tied with Chicago's Patrick Kane and Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele.
4. CAROLINA HAS POWER
The Panthers know they gave the NHL's top power play a little too much time tonight.
After going 11-for-13 on the penalty kill during their recent homestand, the Panthers allowed a pair of goals while shorthanded against the Hurricanes, whose power play is clicking at 29.8%.
Over the course of four power plays, Carolina had seven shots on goal and 11 shot attempts.
"All the games against them have been tight," Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman said. "It's kind of like a little playoff feel to it - a lot of emotions. You look at this game, penalties hurt us. They scored two on the power play. Just like in a playoff series, discipline is key."
Even after tonight's loss, Florida's penalty kill still ranks 13th in the league at 80.2%.
5. A TIGHT GAME
Overall, there's not much else to say about tonight's game other than it was incredibly tight.
Taking a look at some of the important numbers at 5-on-5, the Hurricanes finished with a slim lead over the Panthers in shot attempts (48-42), but trailed in shots on goal (32-25), scoring chances (24-18) and high-danger shot attempts (14-11), according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
And even though Carolina has taken four of five games so far from Florida this season, all of them have been nail biters, with three needing overtime or a shootout to decide the winner.
With a rematch set for Thursday, it's safe to assume that battle will be just as close.
"It was a good game," Stralman said. "It was two good hockey teams. That's really what it's about. That's why it's tight. They got some good bounces for them, and that kind of decided it. Other than that, I think you can draw a lot of good things out of this game for both teams."