In what was called the most important game of the season, the Carolina Hurricanes recovered from allowing an extra attacker goal by the Thrashers to win in overtime, 4-3, on Erik Cole's end-to-end tally. The win finally moved Carolina into the eighth playoff spot, tying them with Atlanta but giving them the final spot in the East on a tiebreaker. Here are five observations from Saturday's win.
1. For a while, it looked like everyone would be treated to an old-time goaltender's duel as Ondrej Pavelec and Cam Ward traded greats stops in net. But while Ward continued to shine — you can't fault him on any of Atlanta's three goals — Pavelec allowed two goals that he'd surely want back, including Cole's game-winner. The goals Pavelec allowed to Cole and Brandon Sutter were both long-range wrist shots that the 23-year-old goalie could not locate. We'll give him a pass on Jiri Tlusty's third-period goal — Tlusty's shot seemed to redirect off defenseman Zach Bogosian —but Pavelec's performance fell well short of Ward's, who again kept Carolina in the game with his outstanding play.
2. Want to get the crowd on their feet? Score goals or drop your gloves. But the performance of Sutter and Thrashers rookie Alexander Burmistrov was a joy to watch. Plenty has rightfully been made of Sutter's wise-beyond-his-years defensive play, but Burmistrov has been overshadowed by Carolina's Jeff Skinner and other rookies who have filled up the score sheet this season. Burmistrov has just five goals and 16 points this season, but he oozes offensive potential while playing reliably in his own end. Atlanta coach Craig Ramsey doesn't hesitate in using the 19-year-old on the penalty kill or in key defensive situations — like Carolina has used Sutter since he stepped on NHL ice — and his explosive skating and puckhandling skills leads me to believe he will be one of the league's best two-way forwards for years to come.
3. Cole's game-winner was his second OT goal vs. the Thrashers this season, and it's good to see the veteran power forward rewarded in his bounce-back season. From the get-go this year, Cole has been instrumental in helping guide the younger players on the roster through the rigors of an NHL season. His efforts didn't go unnoticed, but in the season's first three months he had just seven goals and eight assists in 36 games. Since the calendar flipped to 2011, Cole has six goals and nine assists in 17 games. He has played his best hockey in the division (7-7-14 in 14 Southeast games) and has emerged as a solid secondary scoring threat for Carolina. Is Cole an ideal first line winger? On most teams, probably not at this point of his career. But for what he brings to the Canes each night, Cole has earned his spot alongside Eric Staal on the ice and as a leader in the locker room.
4. It's unfortunate
Sutter Staal lost the faceoff that led to Bogosian's game-tying goal in the final minute, because Carolina 's shutdown pivot had a great night at the dot. Staal won 15 of 27 draws, and Sutter won 18 of 25 faceoffs in leading the Hurricanes to a 42-28 edge on the night. In fact, all four of the Canes' centers finished the night with at least a 50 percent win rate. In case you haven't noticed, Carolina is no longer last in the NHL in faceoff percentage, moving past Edmonton (43.7 percent) with a 44.2 winning percentage.
5. Ian White is closing in on 400 career NHL games, but he's never reached the postseason. If his performance Saturday is any indication, I wouldn't worry about him having any jitters if Carolina finds its way to the playoffs. The game had a playoff atmosphere, and White responded by being a key part of the team's perfect penalty kill, plus added an assist and two blocked shots. He wasn't brought to Carolina to play alongside Jay Harrison on the third pairing, but the grouping is working both at even strength and on the PK.