The faces and uniforms are different, as are coaching styles, but playoff teams in the NHL tend to have a common thread.
Strong, veteran leadership. Solid goaltending. Clutch scoring. Sound play on the back end. Resiliency.
The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t yet a playoff team and haven’t been since 2009. But they played like one Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Stanley Cup champions in 2016 and 2017, winning 3-2 in a shootout at PNC Arena.
In a game that was tight-checking, that had both goalies -- the Canes’ Petr Mrazek and the Pens’ Matt Murray -- making a series of high-quality and at times dazzling saves, the Canes found a way to win.
Canes defenseman Dougie Hamilton had the only shootout goal, but so much went into this victory. Justin Williams, the Canes captain, tied the score with 1:56 left in regulation, positioning himself to the side of the Pens net and knocking a rebound past Murray for a 2-2 tie.
“You have to keep at it,” Williams said. “You’ve got to think and always believe you can do it. See it, think it, do it. If we’re thinking it and believing it, the next process is doing it and we’ve been pretty good with that this year.
“We’re playing well. We’re going to see where it takes us and see how good we can be.”
The Canes (40-25-7) solidified their hold on the first wild-card playoff spot with 87 points, two points behind the Pens (39-24-11), who are sitting in third place in the Metropolitan Division. Columbus, in the second wild-card position, was a 4-2 loser against the Calgary Flames to drop three points behind the Canes.
The Canes couldn’t end it in overtime after a slashing call on Pens defenseman Kris Letang, who rejoined the Pittsburgh lineup after missing 11 games with an upper-body injury. Sebastian Aho, who had more than 28 minutes of ice time in the game, had an open net on the power play but Pens defenseman Jack Johnson stuck out a leg and blocked Aho’s shot with his skate.
Letang, whose goal with 4:37 left in regulation gave the Pens a 2-1 lead, was called for a 10-minute misconduct penalty as well as the slash on Aho. That kept him from being a shootout option for Pens coach Mike Sullivan, who also was missing injured center Evgeni Malkin.
Instead, Sullivan sent out this shootout threesome: Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, who had scored his 37th of the season in the second period. But Mrazek denied them all, poking the puck away from Crosby, making Hamilton’s goal to lead off the shootout the winner.
“He’s phenomenal, he’s a gamer,” Williams said of Mrazek, who had 36 saves. “I love his enthusiasm in there. When he makes a save and he gets all jacked up like that, that gets you going. He’s in your corner and he’s a great guy to have there.”
After a scoreless first period, Brock McGinn gave the Canes 1-0 lead with his ninth of the season, taking a pass from Justin Faulk on the rush and beating Murray to the stick side. The lead lasted 38 seconds. Guentzel, on a pass from Crosby, blasted a shot through traffic for a 1-1 tie.
Letang’s goal, off an odd-man rush, had Pens fans in the crowd of 14,677 roaring. But the Canes pulled Mrazek for an extra attacker and after Jordan Staal won a faceoff against Crosby, Williams was in the right spot to follow up the rebound of a Hamilton shot.
Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour likened it to a playoff game, with everything to be earned and nothing given.
“The whole game was tight,” Brind’Amour said. “Lots of scoring chances but just not a lot of goals. Playoff games are always tight and they always seem to come down to the end. Obviously a positive outcome but it was a good effort from both teams.”
Certainly by the goalies. Mrazek battled his way through, again, bouncing around the crease at times but staying aggressive. Murray seemed almost stoic in his approach, calm, poised.
As Brind’Amour put it, “It was kind of fun to watch.”