RALEIGH, N.C. -- The standings, the teams and the action on the ice all say the same thing. The playoffs are under way.
The Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes, teams with a postseason history, played a regular-season game Thursday night that felt better suited for May. The thing is, because of the tightness of the Eastern Conference race, only one of them may be playing that long.
After Carolina's 2-1 shootout victory in RBC Center, which team that will be is anyone's guess.
The Hurricanes caught the Sabres in the standings, moving into an eighth-place tie with 69 points. Carolina has played one more game than the Sabres, who complete their two-game road trip Saturday against the New York Islanders.
The Sabres weren't disheartened by the Hurricanes' leap into a postseason position. They took solace in dominating the first two periods, in which they held a 24-13 shot edge, and were pleased with the number of chances they created. The problem was beating Cam Ward only once on their 37 shots and not at all in the shootout.
"We worked hard, and we've just got to build off it," said Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta, who opened the scoring. "You can't look at the negative side, you've got to look at the positive side because we've got a big stretch of games here and we're pushing for a playoff spot."
There's no doubt what the most positive development was for the Sabres. Goaltender Patrick Lalime, who missed practice Wednesday with the flu, spent most of Thursday making the Hurricanes sick. He was stellar in his second start in place of injured Ryan Miller, finishing with 31 saves on 32 shots.
"Sometimes when you're feeling your worst you're playing your best," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "That's a heck of an effort for not practicing [Wednesday] and being run down, taking fluids before the game. It was great to see."
Lalime was beaten once in the shootout, when Jussi Jokinen hit the brakes and dinged a shot in off the post. At the other end, Jason Pominville dinged one off the crossbar that fluttered away.
"It's a tough one, especially when you've got those opportunities to put them away," Pominville said.
The announced crowd of 18,219, containing a thousand or so Sabres fans, was vocal from beginning to end. Obviously, with 69 shots and only one goal separation, it had good reason.
Sabres fans got the first chance at bragging rights. The opening goal was the result of simple hard work. A little wrestling-like pin didn't hurt, either.
Paul Gaustad blew past Carolina's defensemen at center ice to corral a dump-in. Ward failed to field Gaustad's soft shot, and the puck went to the front. Clarke MacArthur missed the rebound attempt but followed through by falling on top of Ward.
Kaleta found the open net with 7:17 left in the second and celebrated with a windmill fist pump along the boards.
The Hurricanes owned most of the third period. The Sabres held a 24-13 shot advantage entering the frame, and Carolina wasted little time erasing that. The Canes doubled up the Sabres in the period with an 18-9 edge.
"We expected them at some point to kick in," Lalime said.
The Hurricanes finally knotted the score with 12:26 left in regulation. They had the Sabres hemmed in when old friend Michael Ryan went behind the net. He spotted Anton Babchuk pinching from the blue line, and the defenseman rifled a blast into the top of the net.
Lalime joined the penalty killers in making sure the game stayed tied. The Sabres killed back-to-back penalties in the final 8:26 of regulation. They had to do it without defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, who left with a head injury after colliding with Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour with 12:56 left. Ruff said Spacek should be fine.
Lalime certainly was.
"Our guys did a great job at the start of the game and through the first 40 of being in shot lanes and limiting opportunities," Ruff said. "He paid them back with a bunch of big saves in the third."