The 'Canes had missed two chances to pass the Atlanta Thrashers earlier in the week, losing to Boston and Toronto on the same nights Atlanta was beaten by the New York Islanders and Calgary. They wasted two third-period leads against the Thrashers on Saturday, but Erik Cole took the puck all the way down the ice and scored from the right circle at 2:48 of overtime, giving the Hurricanes a 4-3 win and moving them into the final playoff spot in the East.
Both teams have 58 points, but the Thrashers have played two more games.
The difference in the race right now is the head-to-head meetings between the teams. Carolina is 3-0-0, with all three wins after regulation. Cole also got the OT winner in the teams' last meeting on Jan. 9.
"I actually almost turned it over behind our net," Cole said of the winner. "I was able to get up some speed and got across the line and was trying to shoot it between the defenseman's legs and hope it was on net. Fortunately it went in."
Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward stopped 34 shots and Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec made 33 saves.
"Erik made a good, strong play all the way down the ice to score that," Maurice said. "We talked about this being a huge game and we won it, so we should enjoy that. We should build off it."
Niclas Bergfors, Brent Sopel and Zach Bogosian tallied for Atlanta. Bogosian's goal with 1:24 remaining in regulation and Pavelec on the bench for a sixth attacker gave the Thrashers a point -- but Cole's goal sent them home without a much-needed second point.
"Every time we play them now in here we should go to overtime, I guess," Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay said. "Let Cole race down the ice and score. We just found a way to play a little bit safe, and when you play a little bit safe and allow a good player to come down the ice full speed it's a problem."
Tlusty put Carolina ahead 3-2 on a shot from the right circle at 12:42 of the third period, with Patrick Dwyer getting the assist. That goal was 28 seconds after the Thrashers tied it 2-2 on Sopel's unassisted shot from the right point.
Sutter put the Hurricanes ahead 2-1 on a rush at 8:37 of the third period, beating Pavelec over the stick side shoulder from the high slot. Joni Pitkanen had an assist for his 100th point with the franchise.
Atlanta grabbed a 1-0 lead on Bergfors' tip-in at 12:33 of the opening period. But Carolina dominated the second period, outshooting Atlanta 16-9 and tying the game when Staal fired in his own rebound from the right of the crease at 8:16.
"Both teams knew what this game meant in terms of the standings, and I think we were ready for it and so were they," Sutter said. "It was back and forth, but we managed to get the two points."
The 'Canes now head out for their last major road trip of the season - a four-game swing through New Jersey, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. After that, they have nothing but single-game trips remaining on the schedule.
"We've got a real tough stretch of games coming up, and you don't want to be six or seven (points) out going into that stretch," Maurice said. "We want to hold water in this stretch and then make the big push toward the end."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report