RALEIGH — If the Carolina Hurricanes want to learn what the playoffs are like, they took a step toward it Tuesday night.
Carolina and Pittsburgh spent most of the hard-fought game tied, but it looked like the Penguins would prevail after scoring a goal with less than five minutes left.
Instead, a Justin Williams goal — with Petr Mrazek on the bench — tied it with 1:56 left.
The Hurricanes then had two power plays, one that carried into overtime and two more full minutes at 4-on-3.
But no resolution.
So the game was forced to divert from its playoff feel for the shootout, but that didn’t change the night’s intensity — especially after Mrazek stopped all three shooters and Dougie Hamilton scored the lone goal in Carolina’s 3-2 win in front of 14,677 at PNC Arena.
“The last month has felt like the playoffs, so every game right now is really important and we want to go out and get two points every single night,” Brock McGinn, who scored Carolina’s first regulation goal, said.
There’s no doubt the Hurricanes wouldn’t be where they are — 40-25-7 with 87 points, now two behind Pittsburgh with Carolina having two games in hand — without two key components: goaltending and their first-year captain.
It starts with Williams.
“We’re in our position because of that,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said of Williams’ leadership. “He’s just been great from Day 1. It was an easy move.”
There’s also the timely goals, the latest coming with Mrazek pulled and Hamilton’s point shot fluttering out of Penguins goalie Matt Murray’s glove. Williams was there to clean up the garbage, tying the game with his 22nd goal.
“He’s been doing this all year for us,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s great execution on that; nice to get a bounce at the end and we tied it up.”
And then there is Curtis McElhinney and, on Tuesday, Mrazek, who — when he wasn’t stopping Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel in the shootout — was flopping and flailing all over the ice in desperation to keep Carolina in the game, especially in the third when Pittsburgh pushed, and eventually got, the go-ahead goal.
After a Williams’ shot was stopped at the other end, Guentzel led a rush up ice against Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk. Faulk pinched Guentzel to the boards, but Guentzel floated a pass to Bryan Rust, who then tapped it to Kris Letting for a roofed shot past Mrazek (36 saves) and a 2-1 lead at 18:04 of the third.
The Hurricanes knew they still had time.
“It’s deflating, obviously,” Williams said of Pittsburgh’s go-ahead tally. “Rod always says, ‘Play all the way to the whistle.’ If it takes us 59:59 to get the equalizer, to win the game, that’s what we’re going to do. Just stick with it, stick with it, stick with our plan, and we’ve been pretty good at doing that.”
That mentality resulted in Williams’ tying marker, and the Hurricanes had plenty of opportunities the rest of the way to put away the pesky Penguins.
Defenseman Jack Johnson’s roughing penalty just 12 seconds after Carolina’s tying goal gave the Hurricanes a power play, their first of the game. But they were unable to get another past Murray.
When that expired in overtime, the Hurricanes had more chances. Sebastian Aho came in on Murray (37 saves) on a breakaway, but the Penguins goalie stopped him. Aho did, however, draw a slashing penalty on Letang, who then got a misconduct for criticizing the referees.
The Carolina power play again couldn’t convert, coming closest when an Aho one-timer toward a vacant net was blocked by Johnson.
That set up the shootout, and more Mrazek heroics.
“He’s phenomenal. He’s a gamer, right?” Williams said. “And I love his enthusiasm out there. As a player on the bench, when he makes a big save and he gets all jacked up like that, that gets you going. He’s in your corner, and he’s a great guy to have there.”
Mrazek and Murray traded saves all night, except for a 38-second stretch in the middle of regulation.
First, after Micheal Ferland was stopped on a partial breakaway, the Hurricanes reloaded and re-entered the zone with speed. Faulk came up the right boards and passed back in the slot to McGinn, who fired a shot past Murray to make it 1-0 at 9:38 of the middle frame.
The Penguins tied it on the next shift.
Crosby’s first pass from the corner was blocked, but it went right back to the Penguins captain. He found Guentzel with the second chance, and the Pittsburgh winger buried his 37th goal of the year stick side past Mrazek to tie the game.
In a back-and-forth match of wills, the Hurricanes then proved they could go toe-to-toe with a team that has played 120 playoff games and won two Stanley Cups since Carolina last reached the postseason.
“I’m proud of the way we’re playing, absolutely,” Williams said. “But I’ve said ever since the start, you don’t know how far you can go, how good you can play until you get out there and do it. So we’re playing well, and we’re going to see where it takes us.
“We’re going to see how good we can be.”
Notes: Haydn Fleury played for Calvin de Haan, who missed his third straight game after getting highsticked in the eye on March 11 in Colorado. … Aho logged a career-high 28:27 of ice time. His previous high was 26:25 in a 2-1 regulation loss to the Rangers on Feb. 19 this season. … Hamilton led the game in shots (seven) and shot attempts (13). … Jordan Martinook had a game-high eight hits. Letang’s 10-minute misconduct prevented him from participating in the shootout. He is 19 of 39 (32.8 percent) for his career, but 0 for 2 this season.