RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Jesper Fast could only shake his head in disbelief after missing an early open-net putaway, a play that took on growing weight as the Carolina Hurricanes found themselves in an overtime.
"Yeah, it was hard to get over that one,” Fast said.
He certainly made amends, pushing the Hurricanes through to the Eastern Conference final and eliminating the New Jersey Devils.
Fast deflected in a shot by Jesperi Kotkaniemi on a power play at 7:09 of overtime, lifting the Hurricanes to a series-ending 3-2 victory Thursday night.
Fast's deflection while shielding Akira Schmid set off a celebration for the Hurricanes, who never led until the final play and twice trailed by a goal before winning the best-of-seven series 4-1.
In the first tight game of the second-round matchup, Fast’s winner came after New Jersey’s Jonas Siegenthaler was sent to the box for a delay-of-game penalty for sending a puck out of play from his own zone. It also came with Fast in his second game back on the power-play unit.
“I know that he was shaking his head in the first period,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said, “but to get it in the end is awesome for him.”
Slavin and Brent Burns also scored for Carolina, and Frederik Andersen made 27 saves.
This marks Carolina's first trip to the Eastern Conference final since 2019, which came during Rod Brind'Amour's first season as coach. The Hurricanes are now in their fifth straight playoff season, a veteran group that has pushed through two series despite losing multiple scoring forwards.
They'll next face the winner of the Florida-Toronto series, with the Panthers leading that one 3-1.
“We're stacking memories here, and they're giving them to me, too,” said Brind'Amour, the captain on Carolina's Stanley Cup winner in 2006. “So it's pretty special.”
Dawson Mercer and Timo Meier scored for New Jersey. Schmid stopped 36 shots after being chased early in the second in Game 1 here and then after the second in Game 2.
“I said this morning they'd give me everything they had,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “They gave me everything they had.”
The first four games of the series had been filled by lopsided results, with each decided by at least four goals and a starting goaltender chased early.
The Hurricanes had been in this position in Round 1, with a chance to close out the New York Islanders on home ice in Game 5. They lost that one and instead had to clinch the series with an overtime road win in Game 6.
This time, they needed a dramatic finish to avoid a repeat.
The Devils’ exit comes in a season where a young group arrived to postseason contention earlier than expected.
New Jersey finished one point behind the Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division for the league’s third-best point total (112) and the franchise’s first playoff appearance in five years, then pushed past the rival New York Rangers in seven games despite falling behind 0-2 for its first playoff series win since 2012.
“We knew we had to play better and I think the whole team bought in,” Devils captain Nico Hischier said. “The effort was there and we had our chances."
Both teams missed on apparent easy putaways that loomed large as the game pushed into OT.
The Hurricanes’ early chances included Seth Jarvis’ deflection banging off the right post roughly 6 minutes in. Then came Paul Stastny finding Fast at the top of the crease - only to see Fast lift the puck over the exposed net in a play.
“You’ve just got to have a short memory,” Fast said. “It was hard at the time but you’ve just got to focus on the next shift.”
The Devils’ frustrating moment came in a wild second-period sequence.
Meier stole possession behind the Carolina net and started a pass-heavy sequence near the crease before the puck found its way back to him on the opposite side for a putaway chance. But Meier send the puck harmlessly through the crease.
“When Timo missed the empty net to make it 3-1, I thought and I said this might come back to haunt us,” Ruff said.
Ruff said he didn't know if Devils star forward Jack Hughes would be ready due to an upper-body injury. Hughes saw 14:16 of ice time and got one shot.
“I'm going to give him a lot of credit," Ruff said. "I didn't think he was going to be able to play tonight.”
McLeod had a huge defensive play with about 6 1/2 minutes left in the third, getting his stick in to disrupt Fast's attempt on an empty goal after Schmid had lost the puck behind the net. ... Carolina finished with a 39-29 shot advantage. ... The Devils were 1 for 24 on the power play this season against the Hurricanes before Meier's second-period goal. ... Carolina's Jordan Martinook assisted Slavin's second-period goal, pushing him to 10 points in the series after a scoreless first round. ... Former North Carolina State and current Buffalo Bills running back Nyheim Hines sounded the pregame storm-warning siren for the Hurricanes to take the ice.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP NHL Playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
Copyright 2023 STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.