“This is as sweet as it comes,” said goaltender Cam Ward, who kept the Hurricanes in the game in the final 25 minutes with at least a half-dozen outstanding saves with his team trailing 3-2. “What a finish. It’s hard to believe right now just because we were down 3-2 with only 2 minutes to go. How quickly things can change. That’s why you never give up and play until the final buzzer.”
It was the second shocking loss for the Devils in the series. They lost Game 4 on a goal by Jokinen with 0.2 seconds to play.
This time they gave away the series in the final 1:20.
“They scored two goals in the final two minutes of a hockey game to win it,” Devils center John Madden said. “I will never forget it.”
Jokinen tied it after taking a great cross-ice setup by Joni Pitkanen. Staal then buried the Devils with a shot from the middle of the right circle after a rush up the ice with 31.7 seconds to play.
“It was pretty quiet when Jussi scored,” Staal said. “We were on the bench and we were obviously the only ones cheering and pretty excited. We went over the boards after that goal and we were like, ‘Why not get another one?’ It happened and we’ll take the win.”
Carolina next plays the top-seeded Bruins in a series that starts on Friday in Boston.
Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo and Jamie Langenbrunner connected for New Jersey, while Martin Brodeur made 27 saves in a game that will be remembered as much for Carolina’s comeback as the Devils’ choke.
For the Devils, it was their second straight first-round exit, and this one had to be tougher than last year’s embarrassing loss in five games to the Rangers.
“I really don’t know what to say. I am shocked, stunned,” Devils coach Brent Sutter said.
Zach Parise sat in front of his locker with his hands in his face. Most players spoke in very low voices, and none could recall a more gut-wrenching loss.
New Jersey was 1:20 away from advancing when its world was shattered.
“These guys do a lot of those things against us,” Brodeur said. “They beat us with two-tenths of a second to play and now this, it’s stunning.”
Defenseman Tim Gleason dived to keep in a puck at the point and slid it across to Pitkanen. He skated down the boards, faked a shot and found Jokinen low in the right circle for a shot that went between Brodeur’s legs as he slid across to attempt the save.
Staal won the game with a blast from the same circle that silenced the crowd of 17,625.
“It was a great shot,” Brodeur said. “All series long we didn’t let him skate with speed with the puck down the wing, but for whatever reason with no time on the clock we let him do it.
“He made the shot he wanted and beat me clean.”
At the end, the Hurricanes jumped into one another’s arms while the Devils stood in disbelief.
“I think a lot of them were in shock, as they should be,” Staal said. “I would be if it was the other way around. It was a great series. It was a battle all the way through. We fought hard, they fought hard, a couple of overtime games, a lot of one-goal games. It was a fight to the finish. Two great goalies. It was one of the best series I’ve ever been a part of.”
Until the late rally, Rolston’s second-period, power-play blast was the difference. It came after a giveaway by Carolina’s Patrick Eaves in the Devils’ zone.
Brodeur then made three saves on a two-man Carolina power-play advantage. All seemed set for New Jersey to advance—until the late collapse.
Whitney had tied the game 2-2 on a fluky goal. Staal made a pass from behind the net that Whitney took a swing at and missed. The puck hit his skate and went in the net.
Ruutu quieted the white-towel-waving Devils crowd—at least for a minute or so—when he fired home a shot from the right circle just 62 seconds after the opening faceoff.
Langenbrunner got the fans going again a little more than a minute later. Zach Parise skated around the net and sent a cross-ice pass for the captain to slam-dunk from the side of the net.
Linemates Brendan Shanahan and John Madden made excellent plays to set up Pandolfo’s go-ahead goal. Shanahan took a hit at the blue line while making the pass to set up Madden and Pandolfo on a 2-on-1. Madden centered from the left circle and Pandolfo redirected the puck past Ward.
Notes: The Devils scratched D Bryce Salvador for the third straight game with a knee injury. … Carolina has beaten New Jersey in three of four playoff series, including the last three.