RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The Carolina Hurricanes won their first playoff game Thursday night, with 17 games still remaining in the regular season.

Joni Pitkanen set up Jamie McBain or the overtime winner as Carolinas defensemen continued to jump into play.
  • File photo by Rob Rowe
  • Joni Pitkanen set up Jamie McBain or the overtime winner as Carolina’s defensemen continued to jump into play.

Okay, it wasn’t actually a playoff game, but it sure felt like it.

Jamie McBain scored a half-minute into overtime to finish a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Cam Ward made 27 saves, the Canes’ penalty killers snuffed five power plays, and Chad LaRose and Jiri Tlusty scored in regulation.

Steve Montador and Brad Boyes had the Buffalo goals, and Ryan Miller stopped 21 shots.

Carolina leapfrogged the New York Rangers, who lost at home to the Minnesota Wild, to move into seventh in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo moved to within two points of the Rangers with their overtime point. In other action, Toronto continued its push with a comeback win in Philadelphia to keep pace in tenth, just a point behind the Sabres.

McBain’s goal punctuated a great game by the entire Carolina defensive corps. Taking advantage of the open ice in four-on-four overtime play, Joni Pitkanen carried the puck from the Canes’ end into the Buffalo zone, ambling to the boards to allow Erik Cole and Eric Staal to go to the net. The forwards drew the Sabres down low, and Pitkanen slid a perfect, soft pass to McBain trailing the play. He shot the puck as he stepped across the blueline, and it trickled beneath Miller for the win.

Pitkanen’s finesse on the winning goal cannot be understated. Skating with his head up to survey the ice, he read the play and created both the traffic in front of the net and the space for McBain to really lay into the shot.

The game, as most of the remaining ones will be, was a lesson in playoff simplicity. If you have the puck, throw it at the net. If you don’t have the puck, go to the net.

Neither team carried play in a tense first period of missed opportunities. Canes skaters missed or shanked one-timers several times. From his knees, Brandon Sutter shot over a fallen Miller. Thomas Vanek deked Ward down on a mini-breakaway but the sniper threw his shot straight across the goalmouth, behind Ward’s splayed legs. Bryan Allen made his physical presence felt, felling Jochen Hecht three times on one shift after the Buffalo center cross-checked him in from of Ward.

Buffalo took the lead twice in the second period, and twice the Canes immediately tied it.

Slightly more than four minutes in, Tyler Ennis won a puck battle in the corner and flung the puck into the slot for Tim Connolly, who completely missed it. But Steve Montador caught it just inside the blueline and threw a shot under Ward, who was caught moving his feet.

About two minutes later, Tlusty finished a frantic series of tantalizing chances to even the game. Brandon Sutter snatched Jussi Jokinen’s centering pass out of the air, dropped it as he shielded the puck from a defender, and shot off the post from the side of the net as Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller fronted him. The puck skittered into the empty crease, giving a golden chance to McBain, but Shaone Morrisonn lifted his stick as they cruised through the blue ice. Just before Miller dove back, Tlusty sped down the slot for an emphatic finish.

The teams traded chances until Brad Boyes, traded to the Sabres on Monday, scored his second goal in as many games for his new team about three minutes later. Ward stopped Andrej Sekera’s point shot despite a screen by Montador, and the rebound went straight to Boyes’ stick for a slam-dunk shot. The goal capped a lengthy sequence in the Canes zone as the Sabres simply threw the puck to empty areas of the zone and chased it down. Carolina was mesmerized by the haphazard movement of the puck, and Sekera found himself with plenty of time to consider his shot.

Again the lead was short-lived. Joe Corvo carried the puck into the Buffalo zone down the boards, fighting his way toward the corner before he was checked. Miller found the puck behind the goal and ripped it back up the boards in an effort to clear it, but a cycling Jeff Skinner bodied it down and threw it to the net, all in one motion. LaRose, who had started to skate past the far side of the net to circle the zone but chose instead to stop and drift back into the slot, caught the puck and waited for Miller to spin through his shooting lane before chopping the puck in. Miller ended up with his back to LaRose, looking at the puck in his net.

Both teams combined the defense of the first period with the skating of the second to produce a thrilling but scoreless third. LaRose corralled a rebound of a Tuomo Ruutu shot at the goalmouth and shot high over an empty net about four minutes in. Then Boyes was foiled by a sno-cone save by Ward as Buffalo rushed to the other end.

Carolina killed two penalties in the third, creating shorthanded chances each time. Allen cleared the crease effectively, and fell on the puck to get a much-needed faceoff after Buffalo had exerted some extended pressure.

The Canes flew to Chicago immediately after the game, where they will face the Blackhawks Friday night. The team then gets a small breather, as its next game is Wednesday against the fading Atlanta Thrashers in Raleigh.