Pens' best wasn't enough to beat hot Bruins

BOSTON -- There is nowhere quite like the dressing room of a team that has gone down 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series.

There is especially nothing like the dressing room of a team that has lost an epic double-overtime battle like the one the Pittsburgh Penguins lost by a 2-1 count in the early-morning hours of Thursday to fall behind the Boston Bruins 3-0 in their Eastern Conference finals.

A dressing room like this is a gloomy place, balanced somewhere between the dead and living.

With any realistic chance of getting back in this series hanging in the balance, the Penguins rebounded after two home losses, the last a 6-1 shellacking in Game 2, to produce a dramatically different effort in Game 3.

Even when they gave up a goal on the first shot of the game when David Krejci’s shot caromed off Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen’s stick and past netminder Tomas Vokoun, the Penguins did as they promised.

They stayed patient.

They forechecked with a purpose.

They created chances from a strong defensive position.

And as time went on and the Bruins could not crack the Penguins as they had in the first two games, something special began to unfold.

Starting in the second period, the kind of series most had imagined when these two deep, experience, talented teams faced off in Game 1 emerged.

It’s easy to toss out terms such as "classic" or "titanic," but as this game moved through Wednesday evening and into Thursday, it was hard not to think of it anything but those terms.

It was part the relentless to-and-fro nature of the action and part what was at stake, the reality of what the outcome meant to both teams.

The Bruins did not nurse the lead but forced Vokoun, named the starter after being yanked after allowing three first-period goals in Game 2, into making key saves to keep his team in the game.

But the Penguins began to carry the balance of the play. They earned three second-period power plays and finally tied it midway through the period on an even-strength Chris Kunitz goal.

That it came off a face-off, another element the Penguins had been miserable at in the first two games, was further illustration that the Penguins had brought something different to the table.

Back and forth this game went, each missed chance for the Penguins a missed chance at a new lease on their playoff lives.

Each missed Bruin chance was a missed chance at pushing the Penguins to the edge of the abyss.

Each post rattled was a mournful lament at what might have been.

Crosby hit one on a blind backhand as Tuukka Rask scrambled across the crease in the third.

Nathan Horton hit one in the first overtime.

The Penguins were given a power play in the first overtime when Chris Kelly was whistled for tripping and then the Bruins got a chance when Brooks Orpik high-sticked Brad Marchand.

Late in the first overtime, Evgeni Malkin flipped the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty and still the Bruins could not finish it. Early in the second overtime, the Penguins got a second chance when the Bruins were called for too many men for the second time in the game.

In all, the teams combined to go a shocking 0-for-11 with the man advantage and each time those opportunities ticked away on the giant score clock hanging over center ice, it was greeted with equal parts sigh of relief from one side and rueful grimace on the other.

Rask would not yield, in the end stopping 53 of 54 shots.

Vokoun matched him virtually stop for stop, allowing just the first-shot deflection and then, in the end, the final shot of the night, the Bruins’ 40th.

It came with 4:41 left in the second overtime. After Deryk Engelland could not clear the puck through the neutral zone and Evgeni Malkin was knocked off the puck by a rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr, the Bruins’ resident hero Patrice Bergeron redirected a Marchand pass past Vokoun and abruptly, as all overtime games end, it was over.

It was Bergeron who tied Game 7 of the Bruins’ opening-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the final minute after the Bruins had been down 4-1 and then went on to score the overtime winner.

The Bruins have been so steady, so near perfect since then in going 7-1 in in beating the New York Rangers in five and now three straight against the Penguins, that it’s hard to recall they were that close to being one round and done.

Now they are one win from sweeping the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season team and a team built to succeed in the postseason.

"I think it's a little bit of everything," a weary Bergeron said after reinforcing his status as one of the game’s clutch players. "It's also mental. You've got to stay sharp and find a way, but I think it's all in your head. As long as you don't feel tired in your head, your legs are fine. But you're right, your body is cramping up and you've just got to find a way, just keep battling, because I think everyone is in the same situation."

Well, everyone was in the same position until that final moment, the denouement.

From the moment Bergeron’s shot found the corner of the net, it was as though a great chasm opened between the two teams that had battled in such close quarters throughout the evening.

In the Boston dressing room, relief and cautious talk about not looking too far ahead, taking nothing for granted.

"That’s a game that could go either way," Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said. "It’s overtime. Double overtime. There’s posts, there’s big saves. That’s the type of game you clash and you bang heads.

"Win or lose, you come out and you say, 'You know what? We gave it our hardest.' So, like I said, we’re obviously happy to come out on the right side of it but I don’t think anybody is kidding themselves. You know that it can go either way in a game like that."

But it didn’t go either way. It went their way. And, oh, isn’t that a world away from what might have been for the Penguins?

In that room, hushed and humid, the familiar predictable words of hope and defiance were emitted but history and, perhaps more important, reality serves to crush the words like dry leaves the moment they are spoken.

"It was obviously a large improvement from the first two games," Orpik said.

Then he paused, and you wondered if it was from the tremendous hit he took from Milan Lucic that left him stunned during the second overtime or just the reality of the situation.

"We’re here for results, so there’s no real moral victories at this point in the season," Orpik said.

Crosby echoed those sentiments, saying this game looked so much better because the Penguins were so much better than in Game 2. But that, in the end, meant nothing.

"Did a lot better job tonight but that doesn’t guarantee anything," Crosby said. "So, we do a lot of these same things and I think we all trust and believe we can get this back to Pittsburgh."

Crosby was one of many Penguins who had a terrific bounce-back effort in Game 3 after two miserable outings in Pittsburgh. He went 21-17 on draws and won the one that led to the Pens’ only goal.

Evgeni Malkin was a beast and led all players with 10 shots.

James Neal had seven shots and was a different player. His pass to Craig Adams in the second overtime nearly sent the game and the series onto a different path.

But it didn’t.

They could not, with all their star power and determination, find that second goal that would have changed everything.

"It’s obviously frustrating but at the same time it’s a positive, too," Neal offered, still sitting in his stall with most of his gear on. "We did a lot of good things and stuck with it throughout the whole game.

"We think we deserved a little better tonight but that’s what playoffs are. One bounce can go either way. They got that there. So, obviously, tough to come back from three (games down), you know. We’re going to start with one period and one game because there’s no give-up in this room."