RALEIGH — Playoff bound.
It has been three years since the Carolina Hurricanes have been able to use those two words, three years since they made the stirring run to the Stanley Cup.
But the Canes ended that frustration Saturday, Anton Babchuk's goal at 1:11 in overtime giving Carolina a pulsating 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins and clinching a playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
"It hasn't been much fun," Canes goaltender Cam Ward said of sitting home the past two seasons. "You play the game with one goal in mind and that's to play in the playoffs and hopefully get another opportunity to win the Stanley Cup."
The Canes (44-28-7) are fifth in the Eastern Conference and with 95 points are tied with the fourth-place Philadelphia Flyers. Carolina, with three games remaining, still has the opportunity to finish in the top four in the standings and claim home-ice edge in the first round of the playoffs.
But it was celebration time Saturday for the Canes and a roaring sellout crowd at the RBC Center after Carolina's eighth straight win and its 11th in a row at home.
"It's exciting to know that we're going to be back in the playoffs," Ward said. "But with that being said, we've got three games left here and we really need to bear down and fight for that home-ice advantage, because we've shown that our home fans can be a difference."
So can Ward. Named the NHL's player of the month in March, Ward has won another two in April and tied the franchise record set by Martin Gerber with his 38th win of the season.
To win No. 38, Ward had to make 33 saves. Among them were stops on two of the most dangerous shooters in the game, the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Ward denied Crosby, who had a 12-game point streak, on a breakaway in the first period, knocking away a high forehand attempt. Then, with 8:17 left to play in the game and the score tied 2-2, he challenged and stopped Malkin -- the NHL's leading scorer -- on a penalty shot.
"He was unbelievable," Babchuk said. "He won the game for us."
In a game that had a playoff atmosphere, that was oozing with intensity, the Penguins took a 1-0 lead on Tyler Kennedy's goal early in the game, only to have the Canes tie it later in the first on Eric Staal's 36th goal of the season.
Chad LaRose, irrepressible and feisty, pushed the Canes ahead 2-1 just 57 seconds into the second period with his third goal in two games. But the Pens' Jordan Staal struck early in the third with a big slapshot from the top of the left circle that may have glanced off teammate Ruslan Fedotenko -- the scoring still was being debated late after the game.
As for Ward, he just stayed patient, stayed in position, making big save after big save.
"He was great on a number of occasions, really," Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour said.
After the Malkin penalty shot, Ward made a sprawling, spinning stop on a shot by Kennedy that nicked the post with 2:40 left in the game.
But some of his most timely saves may have come in the first 12 minutes of the game when the Penguins, who had won six of seven, used their speed and strong forechecking to keep the puck in the Carolina zone.
In overtime, Babchuk dropped his stick. But the defenseman quickly retrieved it and was in position on the right wing to take a pass from Tim Gleason.
Babchuk loaded up his big shot and let it rip. Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't stop the puck, Babchuk had his 14th goal, and the party was on at the RBC Center.
"We're In!!" appeared on the Jumbotron.
Playoff tickets go on sale Tuesday.
"We've been on a pretty good roll here," said Canes coach Paul Maurice, who took over the team in early December when Peter Laviolette was fired as coach. "I guess you thought if you won this many games in the last month and a half of the season, this might have happened a little earlier.
"But that just goes to show you how difficult it is to make the playoffs, how well you have to play and how long you have to play well."
email@example.com or 919-829-8945