Erik Cole scored the overtime winner as the Hurricanes, who had been sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference for what seemed like an eternity, finally caught the Atlanta Thrashers in the simplest possible way – beating them in a head-to-head match that ended by a score of 4-3.
With the Canes earning two points and the Thrashers one, the two teams are now level on 58 points with Carolina holding the tiebreaker by having played two fewer games.
“We talked about this being a huge game and we won it, so we should enjoy that part of it,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice.
“Both teams knew what this game meant in terms of the standings, and I think we were ready for it and so were they,” said Brandon Sutter. “It was back and forth, but we managed to get the two points.”
The only blemish for the home team was that they twice relinquished one-goal leads in a third period that saw each team score twice. First, Sutter gave his team its first lead of the night with a perfectly-placed rocket of a wrist shot from the top of the circle that beat goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who had a strong game with 33 saves, over the right shoulder.
Then, the Thrashers’ Brent Sopel and the Hurricanes’ Jiri Tlusty would trade goals 28 seconds apart to restore the Canes’ lead before Atlanta defenseman Zach Bogosian sent it to overtime with 1:24 remaining and Pavelec pulled for the extra attacker.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t win it in regulation with two opportunities to step on them in the third, and that’s something that has been an issue for us a little bit,” said Cole. “We’re just going to have to keep working to try to limit those mishaps.”
Mishaps for Cole were virtually non-existent on the night, with the top-line forward flying all night long. He took a total of seven shots on net – including five in the first period – but he saved his best for last when he went coast to coast in overtime before beating Pavelec with a wrist shot that snuck inside the far post.
Cole’s goal marked the second time that he’s beaten the Thrashers in overtime this season, having also scored the winner in the teams’ last meeting on Jan. 9.
“I actually almost turned it over behind our net, but I was able to get some speed coming up the ice and got across the line just trying to get the puck on net,” said Cole. “Fortunately, it went in.”
While happy for Cole, Maurice saved his biggest postgame praise for the line of Sutter, Tlusty and Patrick Dwyer, who are counted on mostly for their defensive responsibilities but were a two-way force against the Thrashers, accounting for both third-period goals and nearly another that would have won the game in overtime prior to Cole’s heroics.
“Jiri is 22 and I’m not sure if Brandon has turned 22 yet (ed note: he hasn’t), but that line, Patty Dwyer played a great game – it’s more than the goals,” said Maurice. “I’m playing them against good players in (Andrew) Ladd and (Niclas) Bergfors, and that’s a tough group to play against.”
Tlusty’s tally, a goal scorer’s goal that came off a quick shot as he pulled the puck away from an Atlanta defender on a rush into the zone, was his first since Dec. 10. It was also his first since returning from a shoulder injury that kept him out for over a month.
“I’m feeling really good right now,” he said. “I’m just trying to bring my best every single night, and I don’t think about my past injuries. It’s behind me right now. I’m just trying to play as hard as I can.”
“That’s what we’re hoping for through the looking glass with this guy,” said Maurice of Tlusty’s offense, as he also assisted on Sutter’s goal. “It’s not just a defensive mindset – he’s got hands and he’s got good skills. As impressive as the goal was, I thought the pass in the breakout to Sutter was even more impressive. He can play both sides of the ice and is a good, young hockey player.”
The Hurricanes also got a power-play goal from Eric Staal in the second period that canceled out Bergfors’ first-period opener. Although they went a perfect six-for-six on the penalty kill, including 1:19 of a five-on-three power play in the third period, that would be their only man-advantage goal of the night as they did not convert on a lengthy two-man advantage of their own that carried over from the second to third periods.
Rather than let that be the turning point of the game as it was in Thursday’s loss in Toronto, the Canes were able set the pace in the third period.
“With the full two minutes on the five-on-three you obviously want to get a goal, but they were blocking shots and their goalie was making saves,” said Sutter. “There were a few that probably should have gone in.”
The Canes now head out for their last true road trip of the season – a tricky four-game swing through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Following that journey, they have nothing but single-game trips remaining on the schedule.
“We’ve got a real tough stretch of games coming up, and you don’t want to be six or seven (points) out going into that stretch,” said Maurice. “We want to hold water in this stretch and then make the big push toward the end.”
NOTES: Staal’s goal broke a Hurricanes’ scoreless streak of 100:11, dating back to Joe Corvo’s third-period goal last Tuesday against Boston … Cam Ward made his 12th straight start in goal, making 34 saves … All three meetings between Carolina and Atlanta this season have gone to overtime, with the Hurricanes winning all three … Joni Pitkanen’s assist on Sutter’s goal, his first of two, was his 100th point as a Hurricane … Tuomo Ruutu’s assist on Staal’s goal, his 29th of the season, set a new career high … Staal’s goal tied him with Blaine Stoughton for third in franchise history (219). Only Kevin Dineen and Ron Francis have more.