RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes had given up the lead late Saturday against the Atlanta Thrashers, and the game was in overtime. Would the Canes let victory and two points slip away?
No, the Canes would not.
Erik Cole won it on a strong end-to-end rush down the right wing, unleashing a shot near the right circle at 2:48 that Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec could not stop to give the Canes a 4-3 victory and leave the RBC Center in bedlam.
Just like that, the Hurricanes had ended a two-game losing streak. They had beaten the Thrashers for the third time this season and finally claimed eighth place and playoff position in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
"It was a good game, an exciting game," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "I liked the fight. There was excitement, there were mistakes at both ends, but it was a good hockey game.
"We talked about this being a huge game and we won it, so we should enjoy that part of it. We responded under pressure, in a big game, against the team we're trying to catch."
The Hurricanes (26-21-6) twice had chances to move past the Thrashers (24-21-10) this week but lost games to the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Both teams have 58 points, but the Canes have more wins and two games in hand on Atlanta, which now has lost 10 of its last 12 games.
The third period was pressured-packed. Brandon Sutter's score at 8:37, on a strong wrister from the high slot, pushed the Canes head 2-1, but Brent Sopel answered for the Thrashers at 12:14.
Jiri Tlusty, a forward playing his best game as a Hurricane, gave Carolina a 3-2 lead on a bullet from the right wing at 12:42. But the Thrashers pulled Pavelec for an extra attacker and Zach Bogosian ripped a long shot past Cam Ward at 18:36 for a 3-3 tie.
"It was like a playoff game, a great third period," said Tlusty, who also assisted on Sutter's goal. "They took a point from us but we came strong in overtime."
In overtime, Cole collected the puck in the defensive zone, carried it behind the net and then roared up ice.
"Actually, I almost turned it over behind our net," Cole said. "I was able to get some speed coming up the ice. I was trying to shoot between the defenseman's legs and hoping it was on net. Fortunately it went in."
For Cole, named the game's first star, it was his second OT winner this season against the Thrashers. He also had the winner in a hard-fought 4-3 victory Jan. 9 at the RBC Center.
"He's a pretty strong guy when he's driving like that," Sutter said of Cole, who was a handful for the Thrashers all game.
Atlanta scored first. On a delayed penalty against the Canes, the Thrashers jumped an extra attacker into the play and Bryan Little passed to Niclas Bergfors for the goal at 12:33 of the first.
The Hurricanes had gone more than 100 minutes in parts of three games without a goal before Eric Staal broke through for a power-play score at 8:16 of the second to tie it. Staal got off a hard shot from the right circle that Pavelec stopped. The rebound bounced back to Staal, who then rifled a top-shelf shot for his 26th goal of the season.
Both teams had 5-on-3's in the game but neither could convert. The Canes had the two-man edge late in the second period and for 20 seconds in the third. The Thrashers then had their 5-on-3 but Ward, who had 34 saves, came up big.
"I think both teams knew what this game meant in terms of the standings," Sutter said. "We were ready for it and so were they. It was back and forth but we managed to get the two points."
1. Erik Cole, Carolina. Hard-working game and winning goal.
2. Brandon Sutter, Carolina. Plus-2 game includes goal, 18-7 on faceoffs.
3. Jiri Tlusty, Carolina. Goal, assist in forward's best game for Canes.
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