The Carolina Hurricanes have been trying for more than a month to overtake the New Jersey Devils at the top of the Metropolitan Division standings.
They now have the lead.
With goalie Pyotr Kochetkov making all the big saves, the Hurricanes took a 4-1 victory at PNC Arena to slip into first place with their sixth straight win.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi gave the Canes (20-6-6) a rapid-fire goal to start the game, and Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen scored in the second period – Teravainen with a short-handed snipe. Stefan Noesen added a fourth goal for Carolina in the third period as the Canes’ fourth line continues to contribute.
But the story of the game, the headliner this night, was Kochetkov. The rookie was a man in charge of his net, poised, using his speed post to post to make the stops, challenging everything that came his way.
The Devils’ Jack Hughes, active and dangerous all game, got a puck past Kochetkov late in the game.
The Canes and Devils both entered the game with 44 points, although the Devils held first place with two more wins.
Consider that the Hurricanes were 11 points behind New Jersey on Nov. 28, when the Devils were 19-4-0 and the talk of the league. But a 9-0-1 run by the Hurricanes before Tuesday, combined with New Jersey going winless in its last five games, set up a near dead heat and an enticing matchup for first.
It took the Canes just 20 seconds to take the lead. Seth Jarvis got the puck to the net with a centering pass and Kotkaniemi punched it past Vanecek for his fourth of the season.
The Hurricanes then scored twice in a busy second period, had another goal nullified after a review and had Derek Stepan miss an open net on a rebound.
Carolina once again scored quickly in the period – only to have a Martin Necas goal overturned.
Defenseman Brent Burns did some nifty stickhandling and set up Necas perfectly 70 seconds into the period. But the goal was challenged by Devils coach Lindy Ruff and it was ruled Necas had been offside.
Staal had an answer for that. After defenseman Jaccob Slavin lifted the puck out of the Canes end into the neutral zone, Staal took a touch pass from Jordan Martinook and rifled a top-shelf shot past Vanceck.
No challenge on that one. Staal had his ninth of the season, his second in as many games and the Canes a 2-0 lead.
Then, Teravainen struck for his shorthanded goal.
With the Canes killing off a Jalen Chatfield penalty, Teravainen had an opening on the right wing. The winger zipped a shot through the Devils’ Alexander Holtz and past Vanecek, who was lifted after the second period for Mackenzie Blackwood.
Through it all, Kochetkov made the stops. He faced 27 shots in the first two periods, including five from Nico Hischier and four by Hughes.
On one play, Hughes used his quickness to drive the net, only to have Kochetkov stand his ground and Hughes go skidding across the ice.