RALEIGH — Of course it was Justin Faulk who would be destined to score the biggest goal of the Carolina Hurricanes’ season.
The longtime defenseman, in his 558th regular season game, put the Canes on the precipice of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009 with a power-play goal early in the second period, as the Canes took a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in front of a raucous crowd of 17,645 at PNC Arena on Thursday night.
The gravity of the moment seemed to overwhelm the Canes from the outset. New Jersey, with little to play for, carried play through the opening five minutes of the period, and were rewarded five minutes in when Andy Greene fired a shot from the blue line that Petr Mrazek never saw through a perfect screen. The tense home crowd, nervous with anticipation to begin with, went silent.
It roared back to life five minutes later, when Dougie Hamilton caught the Devils on a partial line change and hit Warren Foegele in stride with a perfect pass at the Devils blue line. Foegele made no mistake, snapping a wrister through Cory Schneider’s five hole to tie the game.
A late power play for the Canes became a 20-second two-man advantage when Andy Greene tripped Sebastian Aho at the horn in the first period. While the Canes didn’t score on the 5-on-3, they held the zone for the entirety of Greene’s penalty, and Faulk rocketed home a wrister that beat Schneider clean to the blocker side.
But again, the Devils slowly started to tilt the ice toward Mrazek. Despite being held without a shot for the first eight minutes of the second period, New Jersey turned up the pressure on their forecheck, and the Canes were left to skate in circles in their own zone. The Devils were clearly told to get in Mrazek’s cage early and often, which they did to no discernible effect. The fiery Czech held his own and gave his team a backstop they desperately needed.
Aho, now on thirteen straight games without a goal, had a great chance to put an end to his snakebitten run while killing an Andrei Svechnikov penalty midway through the period, but Schneider stoned him, leaving him wonder what else he had to do to break through.
Svechnikov took another penalty, this one for clearing the puck over the glass, 2:43 into the third period. True to form, the Canes killed it off, then nearly took a two-goal lead a minute late when Justin Williams went 1-on-3 inside the blue line and just missed the left post by an inch or two.
Despite that, the Devils, carrying all sorts of momentum, outshot the Canes 11-1 in the first eight minutes of the period, but weren’t able to dent Mrazek. The defensive effort was typified by a clutch Teuvo Teravainen backcheck without a stick that prevented a Greene shot at an open net.
Although they got no help from the officials, which heard the crowd’s disapproval loudly and repeatedly during the third period, the Canes slowly started to take the momentum back. Micheal Ferland nearly made it 3-1 following up his own rebound with a backhander that went just wide with 6:30 to go, and the Canes were smelling blood.
And finally, after minutes that seemed like hours, Nino Niederreiter scored the insurance marker. He took a 2-on-1 feed from Brett Pesce and skated right around Kenny Agostino to send PNC Arena into hysterics.
As the clock ticked down the minutes, the Devils pulled Schneider with three minutes to go. Despite a pair of great Devils chances, Mrazek stood tall, and combined with the Capitals’ win over the Habs, punched the Canes’ ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
They Said It
Look, y’all...I’m emotionally spent. You are too. Here are some SoundCloud files of the team from the locker room tonight. (Also making an appearance: Tom Dundon!)
We also want to hear from you tonight. What was your reaction to the Canes making the postseason for the first time in a decade? Email us: sbncanescountry at gmail dot com - and we’ll feature the best of the group tomorrow. Otherwise, we’re taking the day off to celebrate. See y’all on Saturday for a game that still has a good bit riding on it.