RALEIGH — Past the game’s midway point and down two goals, the fans in PNC Arena were looking for something — anything — to cheer, scream or yell about.
They got it when Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin hit Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho up high away from the puck and wasn’t called for a penalty. The play was eerily similar to a first-period infraction called on Carolina’s Max Domi, and it gave the crowd a chance to deride the officials.
Moments later, Carolina forward Teuvo Teravainen gloved down a clearing attempt and scored, cutting Buffalo’s lead to one and giving the Hurricanes the boost they — and their fans — needed heading into the final period.
Jordan Staal scored early into the third to tie the game, Aho got his second of the night with under nine minutes left, and Staal iced the game with an empty-net goal to vault the Hurricanes to a 5-3 win Thursday in front of 15,639 relieved fans.
“We weren’t at our best,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “But then the guys just said, ‘OK, enough.’”
The win also clinched the Hurricanes’ fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I know! Isn’t that cool,” said an exuberant Seth Jarvis, who had two assists.
Staal had a more measured reaction.
“We worked hard to get here,” he said, “and we’ve got a long road ahead. But this was the first step, and it’s definitely a night to celebrate.”
They wouldn’t be celebrating without the captain’s performance.
Staal and his linemates, Nino Niederreiter and Jesper Fast, led the way in the third period and tipped the scales fully in Carolina’s favor with the tying goal.
After a dump-in behind the Buffalo net, Sabres defenseman Casey Fitzgerald, under pressure from Niederreiter, wheeled the puck around the boards to get a clear. But Staal won the race to it, deflecting the puck into the middle of the ice to Fast.
Fast passed to Brett Pesce as he entered the zone, and the Carolina defenseman looked off the Sabres’ Mattias Samuelsson and fed back to Staal between the hash marks. Staal wristed his shot over the glove of Craig Anderson (27 saves) to tie the game.
“When we’re creating turnovers with our puck pressure, that’s when we’re at our best,” Staal said.
Brind’Amour thought it was fitting that Staal was the guy who both tied the game and put the finishing touches on it.
“It’s nice to see Jordo get rewarded,” Brind’Amour said. “This guy, we know what he’s meant to this franchise, and he had a huge game. Kind of like, ‘OK, here you go — signature game,’ and he can kind of seal the deal. That’s the guy who deserves it.”
And then there’s Aho, the flashy sports car to Staal’s reliable pickup truck.
After getting Carolina on the board early in the second period, Aho scored the go-ahead goal at 11:39 of the third.
After Jarvis won a battle on the boards, Andrei Svechnikov muscled his way behind the Buffalo net and centered the puck. Aho kicked the pass to his stick and backhanded past Anderson for his 33rd goal of the year.
“We just kind of stuck to it, especially our line,” Jarvis said. “We knew we’d get our chances, and when it came we just have to capitalize. It’s just not getting frustrated, basically, and just waiting for our opportunities.”
Things didn’t look so optimistic when the Sabres jumped out to an early lead by converting their first two shots on goal of the night.
First, former Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner backhanded a pass to Tage Thompson in the right circle, and Thompson pick the short-side corner past Antti Raanta (18 saves) to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead just 3:49 into the game.
Less than three minutes later, Skinner set up another goal when Alex Tuch beat Carolina defenseman Brady Skjei to the front of the net and finished a Skinner pass for a 2-0 lead at 6:25.
Carolina halved the lead at 4:59 of the second period when Aho scored his first of the night, but Buffalo reestablished their two-goal lead 30 seconds later when Victor Olofsson made the game 3-1.
The Hurricanes’ third-period rally, however, ended their two-game losing streak and punched their ticket to the postseason for the fourth straight season.
“That’s what we wanted to get accomplished really from day one four years ago,” Brind’Amour said of the mindset when he took over as coach. “It wasn’t just to have a good team here and there, it was to be good for a long time and give this area a team they’d be proud of, and that’s really what it is.
“And I think the fact that we’re sitting here — I can remember four years ago when we got in, it felt awesome. But now we’re just expected to do this. That’s a huge shift in how I think we all perceive this. And that’s something to be proud of.”
Notes: Staal won all 10 of his faceoffs, while Buffalo’s Thompson lost all seven of his draws. … Niederreiter finished with six hits, the most he’s had since joining the Hurricanes. … Carolina is now 23-0-0 when Jaccob Slavin is plus-3 or better. … Svechnikov had two assists to set a new career high in points with 62.