All it took was a little flair from the Finnish Connection and a touch of magic from Eric Staal in that short span to give the Hurricanes an improbable 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal on Tuesday at the Prudential Center.
"That's why you play until the final buzzer," Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said after the two late goals turned defeat into a second-round series against Boston. "It took seven games and came down to the 59th minute but we never gave up and played a heck of a game."
With their season fading fast and a crowd of 17,625 preparing to celebrate, New Jersey style, Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason made a sensational keep at the offensive blue line when he blocked a clearing attempt and swept the puck to defense partner Joni Pitkanen at the top of the left circle.
"If I didn't get that, they were probably looking at a breakaway," Gleason said. "I got lucky; I just dove across and chipped it over (Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner) closing in on me and got it over to Joni. He and Jussi (Jokinen) did the rest."
The Devils paid the price for their inability to get the puck out of the zone.
"We were eliminating their chances but got caught out there and couldn't get it out of the zone and couldn't cover the puck," Langenbrunner said. "We got caught running a bit in the end they made us pay for it."
Pitkanen took two strides before threading a cross-ice feed to childhood buddy Jokinen in the right circle. Jokinen, renowned more for his success in the shootout than for scoring big playoff goals, made no mistake, one-timing his third of the series through Martin Brodeur's five-hole to tie the game at 3-3 with just 1:20 left in regulation.
"Joni and I have played together in Finland since we were teenagers," Jokinen said. "We always were on same team before we left for the NHL, so I think we both pretty much know where each other is on the ice. He made the great pass and I had a good shot. It was a huge goal for us."
Pitkanen agreed that his familiarity with Jokinen helped.
"We know each other very well, and it was almost natural the way the play went," he said. "I was pretty sure he'd be there and that's a play we try and do all the time. It was like a set play."
With 31.7 seconds left before what would have been the third overtime of the series, Eric Staal sealed the deal and put his stamp on the miraculous finish when he scored his fifth goal of the playoffs, beating Brodeur on the long side with a wicked wrist shot from inside the right circle.
"It was a good play off the wall and I was kind of coming through the middle of the ice and figured I needed to come in with a lot of speed," Staal said. "Chad (LaRose) made a great play, hanging on to it for that half-second while waiting for their defenseman (Colin White) to come up to meet him. He stopped and gave me a nice little chip pass into the middle of the ice. It was the most open ice I had the whole game. I took a couple of strides and got off a good shot."
The goal sent the Carolina bench into a frenzy -- and the sellout crowd faithful into a state of shock.
"It was pretty quiet after Jussi scored to even it up but we were fired up on the bench," Staal said. "We were the only ones cheering, and I said to Colesie (Erik Cole), 'Let's get another one.' And it happened."
Gleason, who was also credited with the initial assist on Staal's game-winner, couldn't believe what was transpiring before his eyes against one of the League's legendary defensive teams and the winningest goaltender in NHL history.
"Everybody knows they are solid defensive team," Gleason said. "How many teams can score even one goal in the last few minutes against them, never mind two in the last minute. But we were able to plug away and fight hard. If we didn't win, so be it, but we had every intention of tying up the game and at least sending it to overtime. Everybody remained positive on the bench and never lost focus."
Pitkanen credited Gleason with making the big play to save the Hurricanes' season.
"This game comes down to those little bounces, and Tim kept that puck in the zone and it always comes down to small things like that that make a difference," Pitkanen said. "He was on his knees and two guys came at him and he made a great pass to me and that's it."
The goal by Jokinen to tie the game was the second timely tally for the native of Oulu, Finland, in this series. He also scored with :00.2 seconds remaining in Game 4 to give Carolina a series-tying 4-3 win.
"I'm not the only hero on this team," Jokinen said. "There were a lot of guys who made a difference on this team, especially in (Game 7)."
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer