NEWARK, N.J. -- Eric Staal was a great player long before his Carolina Hurricanes began their Eastern Quarterfinal matchup against the New Jersey Devils.
On Tuesday night, he gave hockey fans across the globe another example of what makes him so great.
Just 48 seconds after Jussi Jokinen erased a 3-2 deficit with 1:20 left in regulation, Staal propelled the 'Canes into the second round of the postseason as he beat Martin Brodeur with a wrist shot from the right circle to give Carolina a surreal 4-3 victory in Game 7 at the Prudential Center.
It was a Hollywood script ending to a series for the ages -- one that certainly wasn't short on breathtaking moments. It was also no surprise that Staal was there, front and center, to deliver a heroic ending that has the 'Canes heading to Boston to face the top-seeded Bruins in Round 2.
It was the latest game-winning goal in the third period of a seventh game in NHL playoff history. The previous record was held by Al MacAdam of the Minnesota North Stars, who scored at 18:34 of the third period in a Game 7 win over the Canadiens in 1980.
Before Tuesday night, the latest time at which a team trailed in a Game 7 that they won in regulation time was until 8:36 of the third period. That was on April 7, 1959 in Boston, when the Bruins had a 2-1 lead over the Maple Leafs until Bob Pulford tied the game at 8:36. Gerry Ehman's goal at 17:27 broke the tie and Toronto won the game, 3-2, and the series, four-games-to-three.
"I'll remember that one when it's all said and done," Staal said with a smile as wide as the nearby Hudson River. "That's one you keep in the memory bank. Now it only gets better from here. We'll go on to the second round and continue our season and play the Boston Bruins. We look forward to the challenge against them."
A challenge seems to always bring out the best in Staal, who burned the Devils in 2006 by scoring a game-tying goal in the playoffs with three seconds to go -- a match Carolina would go on to win in overtime. Three years later, he helped send the Devils packing again.
But this was a challenge that seemed insurmountable. New Jersey was literally 80 seconds away from advancing to a second-round matchup against the Washington Capitals -- who won Game 7 against the New York Rangers earlier in the night -- when Jokinen silenced the capacity crowd of 17,625 as he one-timed a cross-ice feed from Joni Pitkanen through Brodeur's legs to make it 3-3.
For those who thought that was unbelievable, they hadn't seen anything yet.
"It was pretty quiet after Jussi scored," Staal said. "We were on the bench and we were obviously the only ones pretty excited. When we went over the boards after that goal, we're like, 'Why not get another one?' It happened."
It sure did. A mishap in the neutral zone allowed Staal to get some separation, and he quickly took a pass from Chad LaRose in full stride. With time winding down and trying to avoid what would have been the third overtime of the series, Staal ripped a wrist shot from the right circle that beat Brodeur to the far side to make it 4-3 with just 31.7 seconds to go.
Just like that, Carolina's season went from over to far from it.
"It was probably the most ice I had in the whole game tonight," said Staal, who was shadowed pretty effectively by John Madden for much of the night. "I got a couple of quick strides with the puck and looked up and had some time. I got a good shot off on Marty."
One that could have renamed this state-of-the-art facility the Prudential Library. Everyone in attendance -- Staal included -- was shocked that his wrister found its way past the same goalie who had stopped all 44 shots he faced in Game 5.
"A little bit … I'm not going to lie," Staal said when asked if he was surprised that his shot went in. "He's a pretty good goaltender. I got a lot of shots on him in this series and he's made some big saves. Sometimes in those instant-reaction moments, you're not even thinking. It's pretty sweet."
In the other dressing room, it was beyond sour.
"It's shocking," Brodeur said. "I thought we did everything we could. We worked really hard in this game. Guys performed really well, and we have nothing to be ashamed about losing like that. It's definitely shocking and that is the bottom line, but we had them on the ropes. It's really disappointing."
In a way, it was also fitting. Not so much who won or who lost, but how this series came to an end. A series that had ups and downs, wild endings, dramatic goals. Maybe it would have been even more dramatic had the game included a fourth period.
Instead, though, one of the best players in the NHL added yet another great moment to his resume.
"You almost think that's the way it should be … the game should go to overtime," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "But the right guy had the puck.
"There's good players and there's great players. To get to be a great player, you have to be able to do those things in those moments. It'll be one of those moments that define his career. There's something special about people like that."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.
With their team's season on the line, Carolina's trio of Rod Brind'Amour, Jussi Jokinen and Sergei Samsonov managed to keep puck in the Devils' zone for roughly a minute before Jokinen one-timed Joni Pitkanen's feed past Martin Brodeur to erase a 3-2 deficit with just 1:20 remaining in regulation.
Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, who kept his team in the game in the third period and thus allowed it to make a comeback.
Martin Brodeur was the Devils' best penalty killer during a 68-second two-man disadvantage in the second period. Brodeur, who looked uncomfortable early, made three tremendous saves during Carolina's power play to preserve New Jersey's 3-2 lead.
Brian Rolston's power-play goal at 8:47 of the second period was just New Jersey's third of the series in 25 opportunities.
It's not often that Martin Brodeur allows two goals in a 49-second span, but it came at the worst possible time as Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal beat the Devils' netminder to complete this remarkable feat.