RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH0.2 seconds. That’s all that came between the Hurricanes and an overtime that could have led to essential statistical elimination. The ‘Canes tried the whole ‘playing with a lead” thing, and it almost failed miserably. Carolina couldn’t make a three-goal lead stand up but a Dennis Seidenberg slap shot with a second left was tipped by Jussi Jokinen to put an end to this nail-biter.

When your three stars of the game are Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Ryan Bayda, you know it’s been a very strange night. Fourth line heroes Chad LaRose and Ryan Bayda both scored, as they did in Game 2, and tonight it was enough. While the ‘Canes could not find a way to contain the Devils’ first line earlier in this series, the Devils now can’t seem to stop the ‘Canes’ fourth.

The Devils’ trap defense that has given Carolina so much trouble creaked and broke, allowing the ‘Canes to charge in and pelt Martin Brodeur with 46 shots. Though their offense give the ‘Canes a shock in the third period, the ‘Canes came out with a win in regulation.

Tuomo Ruutu was elbowed in the face early and was slow to get up. The crowd ‘Ruu-ed” in solidarity while he writhed on the ice, but he skated to the bench and never missed a shift. This gave the ‘Canes a great chance to open the scoring for the first time during this series, but Ray Whitney over skated the puck with an open net and the penalty passed by harmlessly.

Later in the first period, Eric Staal made it happen. Seidenberg tried to punch in a shot from close in, inadvertently sending the puck back to a streaking Staal. Staal buried the shot past Brodeur, who was caught up in a tangle with Patrick Elias. Guess he didn’t feel like roughing up his own assistant captain.

‘For 40 minutes, we probably played our best game of the season,” Jokinen said.

Bayda scored his second goal in two games 1:03 later, once again set up by a beautiful grinding Scott Walker play and centering pass. Walker shouldered off two defensemen and put it right on the stick of Bayda, who was winding up. Bayda has almost half his year’s goal production in two home playoff games. Wow.

Patrick Eaves so wants to be the hero in the playoffs; it’s adorable. His play has been markedly better than it was in the regular season, which isn’t a high mark to reach – but still. Eaves has been a new man in the month of April. His passes are crisper, he’s usually in the right place in the right time, and he’s delivering hard checks (he led the team with six in game 3. Not who you’d expect to throw the body around, but the ‘Canes will take it where they can get it.) I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him rewarded with a goal very soon.

Tim Gleason sent a Devil flying in his own zone and Chad LaRose received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after he single-handedly took on three Devils players in front of the New Jersey bench. Entertaining, obviously, but intelligent? LaRose’s fellow diminutive forward, Brian Gionta, received a matching penalty.

Staal, Cole and the ‘Canes put on a puckhandling clinic during the power play, but couldn’t score.

Ruutu clotheslined a Devil at the point with a hit that, I’ll admit, didn’t look legal. He may have been thinking about leading with the shoulder, but that’s certainly not what happened. LaRose took a seat in the box seconds later after a make-up call. This time, it was Zach Parise’s turn to miss an open net; the ‘Cane killer looked on in surprise as a puck bounced right past him while he faced nothing but net.

LaRose got his second in two games to make it 3-0, and it was a beauty. LaRose came in on a rush with man-of-the-hour Bayda, who tied up a defenseman at the net. LaRose put a wrister on Brodeur, collected the rebound and slid around to find Brodeur’s open stick side. Perhaps LaRose and Brodeur have a ‘special” relationship; LaRose scored his first NHL goal on Brodeur in 2006.

The ‘Canes were easily playing their best stretch of hockey in the playoffs and looked unstoppable. After Niclas Havelid was whistled for holding and beyond the ensuing power play, the ‘Canes drilled New Jersey with shots. Brodeur made several dazzling saves to keep his team in the game. Eaves almost got his goal during this stretch, but he shoveled it high.

New Jersey continued to be uncharacteristically undisciplined and Bryce Salvador was whistled after a lengthy, shot-filled cluster…buck (like Cal Clutterbuck, only different) in front of the net. Kudos to the refs for not whistling the play dead, because Brodeur couldn’t have found that puck with detailed directions and a map. Salvador hurt his knee on the play, so Rolston took a seat for him.

With less than a minute left on the clock, Mike Mottau sprung Gionta on a breakaway and he barely beat a sliding Ward stick side to put New Jersey on the board.

‘That 3-1 goal hurt us,” Mo said. ‘We might well have been fine, but when that one went on we were on our heels a little bit, no question.”

During the third period, the ‘Canes fell apart. They went back on their heels and watched as New Jersey picked their shots. The Devils brought it within one seconds after an Erik Cole boarding penalty expired, making things a lot more interesting than Carolina fans wanted the finish to be. Brandon Shanahan put the puck over a prone Ward for his first of the postseason.

And then, all of the sudden, it was tied. Niclas Wallin left David Clarkson alone in front of Ward and though Ward got over and stretched out as far as he could, Clarkson put it over his glove.

‘I don’t think we played that bad,” Ruutu said. ‘We made a few mistakes and they scored a few goals. ‘We came back, and that’s huge. We never gave up and we were lucky enough to get that one goal.”

The series looked to be destined for a third straight overtime, putting Carolina’s chances of advancing on one odd bounce. But with a few minutes left, the ‘Canes took over again. Jokinen hopped over the boards with a 30 seconds left and parked himself in front of Brodeur. Brent Sutter questioned Jokinen’s moves along the crease, as he apparently bumped Brodeur. There was no call or goal disallowed, however, because Brodeur was either outside the crease or too close to the line to call. In any case, I think it was good, because if Jokinen had infringed on Brodeur’s personal bubble, he probably would have been socked in the face. Just saying.

With the seconds ticking away and the crowd begging Joni Pitkanen to shoot, the defenseman saw Seidenberg out of the corner of his eye. The same Seidenberg that had been scratched one game ago, but was re-inserted in exchange for Frank Kaberle tonight.

‘I think sometimes, when you sit a guy, you take the pressure off him a little bit,” Mo said on that decision. ‘He comes back and has nothing to lose.”

Seidenberg let one rip with a second to go. With half a second to go, it nicked Jokinen’s stick. With .2 seconds remaining in the game, it soared past Brodeur and over the goal line.

Jokinen showed everyone at the RBC that he was more than just a pretty collection of sweet shootout moves. He must have decided that this was as close to the shootout as he would get in the playoffs, and he saved the day again.

‘I felt it hit my skate, and then it was in the net,” Jokinen said. ‘I didn’t hear the net, so I was pretty comfortable that it was a goal, but I was obviously a little nervous.”

Video replay confirmed what the crowd already knew, and the series was tied. Brodeur smashed his stick on the boards in frustration. Jokinen also scored his first since Feb. 20. The referees didn’t even bother dropping the puck for the less than a second remaining – that’s how close it was.

The ‘Canes will return to New Jersey for Game 5, and in order to avoid being put on the brink of elimination again, Mo said this win-loss trend has to end.

‘We have to be careful, because the team that has taken it on the chin has responded well in this series,” Mo said. ‘We have to break that cycle.”

The ‘Canes have a lot to build on. They played a long stretch of great hockey and finally figured out to neutralize Parise and his posse. They have already proven that they can win in New Jersey’s barn. However, this is a best-of-three series now, and if they can’t buckle down and figure out how to play while not facing adversity, they’re going to run out of games quickly.

We’ll be back for Game 6 on Sunday night. Hopefully there will be some more bodies in the stands, because there seemed to be even more empty patches of seats this time. Come on out and support your team! You may even get to see a finish like this one, if you’re very, very lucky.