RBC CENTER/ RALEIGHBelieve it: the ‘Canes are in. It took an extra inning, but the Carolina Hurricanes clinched their first postseason berth in three years off an Anton Babchuk blast in OT against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night. If you can tell me off the top of your head when and against which team the ‘Canes clinched in ’06, you deserve a special place in the Hurricane Hall of Fame (if such a thing exists.) This thrilling game, Carolina’s eighth win in a row, was one to remember.

The Hurricanes could not get the puck out of their own zone to save their own skins and Tyler Kennedy scored on a rebound. Furthering speculation that there are, in fact, more Pittsburgh fans in North Carolina than there are in Pittsburgh, the crowd erupted.

Erik Cole and Eric Staal tried to regain some momentum on the shift afterward with three beautiful centering attempts…to Penguin players.

Matt Cooke and Chad LaRose earned matching penalties at 8:20. Sidney Crosby was set loose on a one-on-one breakaway just as the power play began and the Carolina players didn’t even bother to try and get back, already fairly assured of a 2-0 defecit. However, Cam Ward stood strong and made an impressive save on the Pittsburgh captain and former Hart trophy winner.

The ‘Canes were slow and helpless while the Penguins skated circles around them for most of the first period. Finally, due to a lucky break, Carolina found the back of the net. Cole set up Staal in front of the net with a perfect pass from behind Marc-Andre Fleury and Staal bounced it off the Pittsburgh netminder’s skate.

Dwight Helminen was robbed of his first NHL goal when Fleury flashed out his right pad and denied him standing right outside the crease.

The Hurricanes ended the period on a power play. Tuomo Ruutu very nearly put the ‘Canes up 2-1, but Staal’s pass was neutralized by a sliding Penguin as Ruutu drove to the net.

‘We started to play a run-and-gun style, and that’s really not a team you want to play a run-and-gun style with,” Ward said. ‘They’ve got one of the best offenses in the league. But we re-grouped after the first period.”

A few days ago, Chad LaRose woke up and realized that he wanted to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL. Four goals in five games to reach that mark? Apparently not a problem. LaRose sent a shot over Fleury’s shoulder for his third goal in two games and his 19th of the season to make bring the ‘Canes to 2-1.

After a hit on E. Staal that few in the arena liked, the hitting picked up significantly. It almost sounded like gunfire with the amount of slamming that took place along the boards.

The Hurricanes caught an incredibly lucky break when a Bill Guerin tying goal was called off. Guerin fired a puck cleanly past an unscreened Ward, but Chris Kunitz tripped up a ‘Cane along the boards. The goal was immediately disallowed and the ‘Canes received a power play.

Ward stoned longtime ‘Cane Craig Adams on a point-blank shot with three minutes remaining in the second. It would have been Adams’ first goal as a Penguin. Next, Petr Sykora was introduced to Ward’s lightning-quick glove with just over a minute remaining.

‘Pittsburgh played a great game tonight and Cam was the difference,” Brind’Amour said.

With Mommy and Daddy in attendance, Jordan Staal wasn’t about to let his big brother hog all of the glory. J. Staal launched one past a surprised Ward at 3:34 of the third period. This prompted chants of ‘Jordan’s better!” and ‘Eric’s better!” to break out in the upper sections. Not surprisingly, no agreement was reached.

In one of the worst calls I’ve seen in a week or two, the referees awarded Evgeni Malkin a penalty shot after he was blatantly hauled down by Tim Gleason. However, a penalty shot is supposed to occur after player has been deprived of a good scoring chance, and Malkin managed to get a tricky shot off that bounced off Cam Ward’s shoulder before he fell to the ice. The scouting report on Cam Ward is that he’s weakest on his glove side and usually you’ll see opponents go high glove, but Malkin decided to try low stick side. Ward kicked away the league leader in points’ penalty shot attempt with his right pad.

‘It could have gone both ways, but nonetheless it was a big moment in the game,” Ward said.

Carolina has been quite the third period dream-crusher as of late, but the team came very close to allowing Pittsburgh to walk away with it. After a scrum in front of the net, the puck made a beeline for the goal and glanced off the bottom of the post.

Bill Guerin took a tripping penalty off a faceoff with 1:47 remaining in the game. What’s better than administering an atomic wedgie to a misbehaving little brother? Scoring on your little brother’s team with less than a minute left to clinch a playoff spot. But Eric Staal’s wraparound attempt skittered under Fleury’s pads and out of danger.

Enter the ‘Babs.’ Anton Babchuk hasn’t let his cannon of a slap shot fly recently, but he took a pass from Tim Gleason at 1:11 of overtime and slammed it home. Babchuk was tackled by teammates as ‘Canes poured onto the ice.

With three games remaining, the Hurricanes are in the playoffs. Where they will wind up is uncertain. Though home ice advantage is so close they can almost touch it, Philadelphia is tied with Carolina and holds a game in hand. Though placement is important, making sure your workhorse starting goaltender – without whom the team would never have gotten to this point – is healthy for the postseason is an even bigger concern, so expect Cam Ward to take a break. The Hurricanes will play the Islanders on Tuesday, which could finally give Michael Leighton the chance to joyously throw his hat into the air and don his helmet for the first time since late February.

Playoff pre-analysis and an end-of-regular-season awards will come during the next few days. Enjoy the rest of Tar Heels’ run and know that there’s more exciting postseason action right around the corner.