Senators save themselves from the abyss

OTTAWA, Ontario -- For a moment before he headed off the ice, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik leaned against the team’s bench and stared up at the Scotiabank Place scoreboard.

The Ottawa Senators were still mobbing overtime hero Colin Greening across the ice while Orpik watched the replay of the goal that abruptly ended a wonderful night of playoff hockey as if wondering "How the heck did that happen?"

How the heck, indeed?

Much later, about 12:15 a.m. ET, Greening emerged from the Senators’ medical room to meet with reporters to help answer that very question. Doctors had been finishing up a job they started in the second period, pulling strands of fiberglass out of a small gash on Greening’s left cheek courtesy of an errant high stick.

He had missed about five minutes when the stick first cut him, but he returned in plenty of time to score the biggest goal of his career 7:39 into the second overtime period to give the Senators a completely improbable 2-1 victory over the Penguins and narrow the Penguins’ series lead to 2-1 with Game 4 set for Wednesday night in Ottawa.

Never mind the biggest goal, how about biggest anything in Greening’s life?

"I can’t recall anything. That’s definitely up there. When it went in, I was just overjoyed just given the situation because obviously if they win there, it’s 3-0 and now we’re at 2-1 with another game at home, so you kind of put that in perspective afterward," the 27-year-old Newfoundland native said.

We often talk about how fine the line is between winning and losing between being a team of destiny and a team of regret.

How fine was that line Sunday night?

Even though the Ottawa Senators did many of the things they’d promised to do after dropping the opening two games of the series in Pittsburgh and being outscored 8-4 along the way, it looked like it wouldn’t be enough.

They kept the Penguins from scoring early, which they had failed to do in both games in Pittsburgh. They killed off a 59-second five-on-three.

They denied Sidney Crosby, he of the masterful hat trick in Game 2, and Evgeni Malkin, who threatened to single-handedly ruin the Senators’ season early in the first overtime, neither of whom managed a point on this night.

And still, it almost wasn’t enough.

Trailing 1-0 late in the third period thanks to a wicked Tyler Kennedy shot that beat netminder Craig Anderson with 1:07 left in the second period, Erik Karlsson was whistled for slashing after he whacked Matt Cooke’s stick out of his hands in the neutral zone.

Oh, the irony.

The Senators were going to fall into a 3-0 hole because of another altercation between Cooke and Karlsson.

But with Anderson scurrying to the bench for an extra attacker, captain Daniel Alfredsson darted into an open space in the Pittsburgh zone and deflected home a beautiful Milan Michalek pass past Tomas Vokoun to tie the game with 28.6 seconds left in regulation.

While the Senators celebrated on the bench and on the ice, a relieved Karlsson celebrated by himself in the penalty box.

"I was pretty lonely," the defenseman admitted.

If this was a night about stepping back at least a little ways from the playoff abyss, it was an important bounce-back game for Karlsson, who said he thought he played his best game since returning from a lacerated Achilles tendon late in the regular season.

"Somehow we found a way. It didn’t look too bright at the end there, but we came through," Karlsson said.

"You just got to believe in the guys out there and we really pushed hard to get a goal and we came through," he added.

After playing only 15:37 in Game 2 and coming in for criticism from head coach Paul MacLean, Karlsson bounced back to play 39:48, the most of any player on either team in Game 3.

"You know, going into overtime we felt like we had everything in our own hands and weren’t afraid to lose," the defending Norris Trophy winner said.

A number of the Senators trotted out the favored descriptor "pesky" that has been applied to them throughout this season. And then someone suggested to the Senators’ venerable captain that the team might be running out of ways to score as they won their third straight home game this playoff season.

"No, we’re not. I don’t think we are," Alfredsson said, joking.

"You know, it’s going to be tough, but we know we’re going to go for it," Alfredsson added. "We’re not going to sit back. We would rather let them score a second goal than us just try and kill it off. We had to go for it. Then when you get rewarded and score the goal, you could feel the whole building and the way they rocked it, and it gives you energy and it’s a great feeling."

The great and wondrous thing about overtime hockey is that each passing moment, each mistake not capitalized on, each scoring chance not buried, becomes another piece of lead that the losing team must drag behind them until the next game.

In the case of the Senators, had they not found a way, had Greening not charged toward the Pittsburgh net and somehow got his stick on the rebound of an Andre Benoit shot and somehow propelled it past Vokoun for his third goal of this series, well, that lead would at this moment be dragging the Senators out of the postseason.

Instead, with two off days before Game 4 on Wednesday night, the Penguins will have to answer questions about the one that got away.

"It’s frustrating," Crosby acknowledged. "Whether you win or lose, you turn the page pretty quick. It’s obviously disappointing we couldn’t close it out, but we’ll have to bounce back."

When two teams trade 98 shots over the course of almost 88 minutes of hockey, there is plenty of time to wonder what might have been.

Crosby found Pascal Dupuis in a seam in the first overtime and Dupuis rocketed a shot off the post behind Anderson.

Both teams took minor penalties in the second overtime and managed to kill them off.

The Penguins, of course, will wonder most about not being able to close out regulation with the man advantage.

"I think you like to think you can hold onto the puck for the last 1:27 with the power play, and that wasn’t the case. They came up with a huge goal," Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.

In the end, whether this game turns out to mean anything other than prolonging a series by a few days or whether it means something much more dramatic in terms of the plucky Senators upending the heavily favored Penguins, will play out in its own time.

But for a few days, at least, the Senators will relish the memories of a night of great drama that for the time being has changed the identity of a series that looked for a long time like it was going to be over before it developed an identity of any kind.

"I’m sure … this one hurts for them. They could have put a stranglehold on us, now we’re right back in it," Alfredsson said. "We go down 3-0, that’s a big hole, as everybody knows. Now it’s 2-1, so we’re right back in it."