RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes were on the brink Friday. On the brink and teetering.
They were ever-so-close to a killer loss to the New York Islanders. They may have been ever-so-close to seeing their Stanley Cup playoff hopes begin to wither with another tough home-ice defeat.
And then Erik Cole delivered to tie the score 2-2 with 4:37 left in regulation.
And then defenseman Joni Pitkanen scored at 3:58 of overtime, on a bomb of a shot, to win it 3-2.
"Everybody knows what's at stake," goaltender Cam Ward said. "This game could have possibly been our season."
But this night, the goal-starved Canes found a way to score goals and found a way to win before a crowd of 17,686 at the RBC Center. Carolina (33-29-10) pulled even with the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 76 points, although the Sabres have two games in hand.
Ward was brilliant with 35 saves in a duel with the Isles' Al Montoya. There were enough high-quality saves between the two - Montoya had 33 stops - to fill a goaltending instructional video.
Then there was Jeff Skinner. The Canes' rookie forward was tough and relentless, scoring his 25th goal of the season and assisting on Pitkanen's winner.
Canes fans are forever urging Pitkanen, a smooth-skating playmaker, to "Shoot, Joni, shoot!" But the big Finn always tends to pass up a shot for a pass.
But Pitkanen didn't hesitate in overtime. Taking Skinner's pass, he unloaded a bullet from the left circle that Montoya had no chance of stopping for just his third goal of the season.
"Jeff made a nice play there, and I decided to shoot," Pitkanen said, smiling.
Ward has been on the receiving end of more than a few Pitkanen shots in practice.
"I tend to flinch when he shoots on me," Ward said. "He's got so much skill, and he brings a lot to our team. He really picked up his game in the third period and showed what kind of player he is."
Cole, the old pro, has scored many big goals for the Canes - the power forward has seven game-winners among his 20. Like his teammates, he was fighting the frustration of not being able to score the past few games and was stopped a few times by Montoya during Friday's game.
Canes coach Paul Maurice said he could feel the tension mounting. Skinner's first-period goal gave Carolina a 1-0 lead, but the Isles (27-33-12) tied in on Frans Nielsen's goal late in the first.
Early in the second, the Isles took a 2-1 lead. Rookie Michael Grabner, possibly the swiftest skater in the league, twice was denied by Ward on breakaways before scoring at 3:10 of the second for his 29th.
"The hockey club looked tense," Maurice said of the Canes. "Tonight was the first game I thought we came out a little bit tight."
But the Canes regrouped during the second intermission, Skinner said.
"We had a good talk and came out a bit desperate," he said. "Not that anything had to be said. I think our compete level wasn't where we wanted it to be in that second period.
"That's what you saw in that third. You saw that desperation."
Cole scored from the right side of Montoya off a pass from Cory Stillman, who hustled for the puck behind the net. The building was rumbling.
"We haven't been able to find a way to get one in," Cole said of the Canes' recent offensive problems. "And it ends up being a shot that you wouldn't have expected to go in that goes in.
"It was a good comeback for us and a big two points."
Perhaps the two biggest points of the season.
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