RALEIGH — It was the game the Carolina Hurricanes had circled on the schedule for weeks, one that loomed larger and larger.
It was a game the Hurricanes sensed they would need to win to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, a game they knew would be played with a playoff edge to it and in the RBC Center, with their Caniacs in full throat.
That the Buffalo Sabres won it 2-1 on Sunday, with Jhonas Enroth in goal and on an overtime goal by defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, was not only a shocker but a downer for the Canes.
Enroth, 22, may have a lot of promise, but he's not Ryan Miller, the Sabres' No. 1 goalie and one of the best in the world. As for Gragnani, the young defenseman had spent nearly all of the season in the American Hockey League.
But Enroth, again filling in for an injured Miller, had a Miller-esque game, stopping 35 shots. And Gragnani unloaded a shot that bounded off Canes defenseman Tim Gleason and past goalie Cam Ward at 2:56 of overtime - his first NHL goal and one that settled a tense, hard-hitting game that probably doomed the Canes' playoff chances.
"Their D-man threw it at the net, and it appeared to be going wide and it deflected off something," Ward said. "I'm not sure what it hit, but they got a lucky break."
To which Gleason added in a glum Canes dressing room: "It's a sour feeling."
On what proved to be a near-disastrous day for the Hurricanes (38-30-11), the New York Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout and then the Sabres won.
The Canes, who had a three-game winning streak snapped, remained ninth in the NHL's Eastern Conference with 87 points, two behind the eighth-place Rangers (42-32-5) and three behind the Sabres (40-29-10) with three games left to play in the regular season.
"We've been feeling like this for the last two weeks, three weeks - that you had to win that game," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "There seems in every one of these you're going to lose a game that feels like it's the end, and you can't let it be that way.
"You get a real feeling of disappointment after a loss like that. But not a feeling that you let one slip away, because you did what you were supposed to do."
But the Canes, who got their only goal from Eric Staal in the second period, did not do all that they needed to do. They came up empty on all six power plays, including 61 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage late in the second period with the score tied 1-1.
Staal was wide with an attempt, and Joe Corvo banged a shot off a post during the two-man advantage. Enroth then stopped Cory Stillman on a shot between the legs in close quarters as the Sabres killed off the penalties.
The Canes' final power play came with 3:22 left in regulation, after the Sabres' Mike Weber put a chokehold on Staal in front of the Buffalo net. With the sellout crowd of 18,740 on its feet, Joni Pitkanen got a heavy shot, but the Canes couldn't convert.
Ward, who had 29 stops, made hustling saves on Drew Stafford shots late in regulation and again in overtime, only to be beaten on Gragnani's shot.
"It hit my stick or body and went in the net," Gleason said.
Staal scored on a similar shot at 5:50 of the second period to tie the score 1-1, notching his 500th career point. He got off a shot from the left wing that hit the left leg of defenseman Andrej Sekera, the puck bouncing up and over Enroth.
The Sabres had taken a 1-0 lead at 10:47 of the first on an odd-man rush. Stafford, who assisted on both Buffalo goals, passed cross-ice to defenseman Chris Butler, who scored his first of the season on a blast from the right circle.
"You can't complain about the effort or how [the Canes] played," Maurice said. "We generated enough to score a bunch of goals and didn't, but their goaltender made the saves. ... Probably our poorest chance went in, and our best ones stayed out."
What now for the Canes?
They face the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday at the RBC Center, then close on a last back-to-back - at Atlanta on Friday, then back home Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"It's not going to be easy ... but we have no choice but to win hockey games and regroup after this," Ward said.
If the Canes can.
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