RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Jordan Staal scored twice and Nino Niederreiter beat Juuse Saros for the go-ahead goal early in the third period, helping the Carolina Hurricanes to a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Monday night in the first game of the teams' first-round playoff series.
Niederreiter hammered the puck past Saros from between the circles at 2:26 of the third, finishing a perfect pass from Martin Necas only moments after Saros had made a terrific stop on Vincent Trocheck.
That broke a 2-all tie as the Hurricanes made their move with a strong final 20 minutes — not to mention a far more physical stretch after the first.
Staal illustrated that with his second goal midway through the second, created partly by his own pressure on the forecheck. After Saros stopped a shot near the post from Warren Foegele, Carolina's captain gathered the loose puck and pushed it past Saros for a 4-2 lead at the eight-minute mark.
Andrei Svechnikov added the clinching empty-netter on a breakaway at 18:13 for Carolina. Teuvo Teravainen also scored a first-period goal. Alex Nedeljkovic got the start in net and finished with 22 saves.
Carolina finished with a 38-24 advantage in shots on goal in a game with plenty of chippy moments and chesty exchanges between the teams.
Filip Forsberg and Erik Haula scored for the Predators. Saros finished with 33 saves.
The Hurricanes host Game 2 on Wednesday night before the best-of-seven series shifts west to Nashville in neighboring Tennessee.
PNC Arena was rowdy again after the state loosened COVID-19 protocols regarding public gatherings and physical distancing earlier this week.
The Hurricanes welcomed a loud, towel-waving crowd of about 12,000 for this one, roughly two-thirds full. The team had roughly 5,000 fans attending home games to close the regular season.
Gov. Roy Cooper — a notable Hurricanes fan who announced the protocol changes — sounded the pregame storm-warning siren for the Hurricanes to take the ice.
Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina State women's basketball coach Wes Moore sounded the siren for the second and third periods.
Carolina had won the first six meetings of the eight-game season series on the way to winning the Central Division title, the first division crown for the franchise since winning its only Stanley Cup 15 years ago.
The Predators won the last two meetings to close the regular season, securing their seventh straight trip to the postseason behind a late surge that had Nashville steadily climbing the division standings since March.
Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin missed much of the week's workouts with a lower-body injury suffered in the second-to-last game at Nashville. He was a game-time decision, and had 21:25 of ice time.
Nashville coach John Hynes decided to get more size in his lineup, going with 6-foot-5 defenseman Erik Gudbranson (222 pounds) instead of Dante Fabbro (6-0,189). And forward Tanner Jeannot (6-2, 208) was bumped up from the fourth line to the third.
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Aaron Beard, The Associated Press