RALEIGH — The thousands of empty seats at the RBC Center were utterly mystifying, given the lack of a competing ACC basketball game and what was at stake for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Thursday's game against the Buffalo Sabres was as close to the NHL playoffs as it gets in March, the Sabres being two points behind the Hurricanes for the eighth and final playoff spot with two games in hand.
Anyone who stayed away missed a good one. Given everything that was on the line, the game measured up. It came down to overtime, where it took the Hurricanes a mere 26 seconds to secure the 3-2 win on a Jamie McBain shot.
So not only did they hold off the Sabres for eighth, they moved past the New York Rangers into seventh - something they failed to do when given the chance against the Rangers last week, giving up a late lead and in a shootout.
It's the sign of a natural progression as a young team learns how to handle the pressure of a playoff push. Eric Staal said he could feel the confidence building, not only in the younger players but throughout the team. That showed Thursday night.
"If you go back to that Rangers game, we eased up with the lead instead of going forward," McBain said. "Tonight, we had a big [penalty kill], but after that we kept creating chances and momentum, instead of sitting back and letting them dictate the play."
It was a crazy ride to get there. The Sabres scored. Carolina countered. The Sabres scored again. Carolina countered again. Buffalo's Thomas Vanek missed an open net from a few feet away in the first period. Carolina's Chad LaRose fired high on an open net in the third.
The final six minutes of regulation really had a playoff feel - checks finished, shots blocked, nerves tightened. Staal took a silly tripping penalty at center ice with less than four minutes to go, and the Hurricanes killed it with resolute determination.
Of course, a game like this should have that kind of feel. This was the first of three games between the teams in the final month, and if it comes down to these teams for the eighth spot, the head-to-head competition may determine the winner.
The Hurricanes' recent record in these games - "four-pointers" in the parlance of our times - hasn't exactly been stellar lately. In their previous seven games against teams in the Nos. 6-10 spots in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes were 1-3-3.
That includes the shootout loss to the Rangers last week, a game the Hurricanes led with two minutes left in regulation. Given a second chance, with the Rangers losing at home to the woeful Minnesota Wild, the Canes made the most of it.
It's a timely development. The Hurricanes have passed up too many chances to separate themselves from the pack.
After all the times the Hurricanes have narrowly missed or made the playoffs - out by a point in 2000, in by a tiebreaker in 2001, out by four points in 2007 and two in 2008, in by four in 2009 - no one needs any enlightenment about just how thin the margins can be.
"These are huge points for us," McBain said. "We're going to need all of them down the stretch."
Never mind that this wasn't a sellout. The fans may not have shown up in force, but the Hurricanes did when it counted - and that's what it will take to hold onto their spot in the standings.