The Carolina Hurricanes certainly know how to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
Winger Scott Walker scored with 1:14 remaining in the first overtime to send the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference final with a 3-2 Game 7 victory against the Bruins on Thursday night at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.
The Hurricanes will now open their best-of-seven playoff matchup against the Penguins at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena on Monday night (7:30 p.m. ET).
The Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks will do battle in Game 1 of the Western Conference final Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET) in Detroit.
After letting a one-goal lead slip away in the third, the Hurricanes regrouped to stun Boston with more than a minute to go in the first extra period.
Winger Ray Whitney wired a shot that Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas couldn't handle. Walker, who scored his first-ever post-season goal, stormed in to bat home the rebound.
"I just went to the net and whacked one in," said Walker, playing in his 25th career NHL playoff game. "Didn't take much skill."
Thomas wasted no time in leaving his crease once Walker ended the game.
"I saw the guy coming down the lane, laying up for the shot," Thomas said. "I saw the shot. I made the save and left the rebound up in the air."
Already public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Boston fans when he laid out former Hurricanes defenceman Aaron Ward in Game 5 at TD Banknorth Garden, Walker propelled Carolina to hockey's final four for the first time since 2006. Walker was slapped with a $2,500 US fine but received no suspension for the Game 4 infraction.
"We knew it would be a tough night for Scotty coming back to this building," Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. "He's such a valuable player to this hockey team, and it's nice to see he was rewarded."
Rod Brind'Amour and Sergei Samsonov also scored for Carolina, while Ward made 34 saves.
The Bruins received markers from Byron Bitz and Milan Lucic. Thomas, a Vezina Trophy candidate, finished with 34 stops.
"It doesn't matter who scored," Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said. "The season's over."
Carolina has won six consecutive playoff series dating back to its 2006 Stanley Cup run, with their last four coming during the seventh and deciding game.
"Just because we won these series doesn't mean we are going to change our approach against Pittsburgh," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "If we try to trade goals with them, it will be a short series."
Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, joins Ed Belfour as the only goaltenders in NHL playoff history with 4-0 records in Game 7's.
Ward continues to shine for the Hurricanes — first out-playing New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur in the first round, and then out-duelling Thomas in this series.
"I think it will be a little bit harder to fly under the radar now," Maurice said.
The top-seeded Bruins, who haven't advanced to the Eastern Conference final since 1992, are now 0-21 when trailing 3-1 in a best-of-seven series.
Coincidentally, Boston coach Claude Julien was the bench boss of the Montreal Canadiens when the Habs rallied from 3-1 down to defeat the Bruins in 2004.
Things looked good early for Boston, which took a 1-0 lead at 7:42 of the opening period on Bitz's first career post-season goal. With the Bruins buzzing around Ward, Bitz did some nice work down low before converting a shot into the open net.
The Hurricanes came back more than six minutes later. After Boston failed to clear the puck, defenceman Dennis Seidenberg blasted a point shot that went off Brind'Amour and behind Thomas. It was Brind'Amour's first playoff goal since the 2006 Stanley Cup final.
Seidenberg registered two assists in the game, and Brind'Amour left the contest in overtime when he was on the wrong end of a puck to the face while sitting on the bench.
Both goaltenders came up big early in the second period, but it was the Hurricanes who grabbed a 2-1 edge.
Defenceman Joni Pitkanen avoided a check before sending a great cross-ice feed to Samsonov, who scored his fourth goal in his last five playoff games.
Thomas was otherwise stellar in the second period, stopping nine of 10 shots to keep the Bruins within reach.
The Hurricanes appeared to score on another power play in the first minute of the third, but Aaron Ward cleared the puck out of harm's way before Brind'Amour's deflection could cross the goal-line.
Ward's save was huge, as the Bruins tied the game 2-2 at 6:19. Parked behind the net, Marc Savard directed the puck toward the Carolina crease, allowing Lucic time to lift a shot over Cam Ward's right shoulder.
The Bruins didn't do themselves any favours with an inept power play. Boston was 0-4 with the man advantage Thursday night, and was only 2-27 for the series.
"We had higher expectations than this," said Julien, whose team finished first in the Eastern Conference regular season this year. "We dug ourselves a hole. Had we played better in the beginning of the series, [we] might have had different results."