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Senators' hopes alive, Pens continue to dive in wild matchup

OTTAWA, Ontario -- The empty stares in a nearly deserted visitors dressing room said more than the actual words that came out of the players' mouths.

Where exactly do the Pittsburgh Penguins go from here?

"We'll see," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after his team blew a 3-0 lead Tuesday night in a stunning 4-3 OT loss to the Ottawa Senators with so much on the line.

"We can talk all we want, but the next two games will show our ability to bounce back here. I think we've done a good job of it all year, through all kinds of different circumstances. It's a great challenge for us to earn our way to the playoffs."

No. 87 certainly showed up in this game, scoring just 10 seconds into the contest and later adding an assist as it appeared the Penguins might clinch a playoff spot and end the monthlong misery that had threatened to derail their season.

Not so.

In what might go down as the most memorable game of the season, the Senators charged back with four unanswered goals, Mike Hoffman tying it with the goalie pulled at 18:12 of the third period and Mark Stone scoring his second of the night to cap it 2:43 into overtime.

Pure bedlam at the Canadian Tire Centre, the Senators keeping their playoff hopes alive in what continues to be one of the most improbable stories of the year.

"We just always believe we can come back," said Senators goalie Andrew Hammond, who improved his record to a ridiculous 18-1-2. "It would be a shame now not to get into the playoffs after this win, right?"

Who's going to bet against this team? The Sens are just one point back of a rattled Pittsburgh team, with two games each remaining. Ottawa is tied in points with Boston, with the Bruins having three tough road games to end things.

"It's a great feeling," said Stone, the rookie winger who has 24 goals on the season. "It's just a big win for our team, a character win. It's just another one of those ways that we're finding a way. It's a big credit to everybody in this locker room -- nobody gives up."

The Sens play at the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers on Thursday night before ending the regular season Saturday afternoon on the road against the Philadelphia Flyers. The odds are still against them, but ...

"We've kind of built a quiet confidence in here," Hammond said. "We obviously have a tall task ahead of us to get back into the playoffs, but we're just going to keep going and see what happens. We're not going to have any regrets about how we play."

With a 19-3-3 record since Feb. 18, the Senators' late-season run defies anything anyone in their right mind could have ever predicted.

You just get that sense the hockey gods don't want it to end.

Speaking of improbable stories, the Penguins are now 3-8-2 in their past 13 games, somehow blowing a game that seemed very much in hand Tuesday night; Pittsburgh was outshot 37-16 after the opening period.

"Their defense is a mess, so they don't ever escape their zone," TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, who was between the benches for Tuesday's game, told ESPN.com afterward. "When they lost [Derrick] Pouliot to injury tonight, now they're down to five D. I was shocked with how they ended up back on their heels at the start of the second period and never got off them. For 40 minutes, they never got off them. That's not the Penguins I remember.

"And, so, they don't look like a team that can grab anything by the throat. Nothing."

Pouliot's injury is the latest to a crippled blue line that is missing three of its top four guys in Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff.

And, let's be fair, how many teams in the NHL could survive that? Letang was having a Norris Trophy-worthy season before his concussion. Take Erik Karlsson out of the Ottawa lineup or Drew Doughty away from the Los Angeles Kings and see how that stings.

Still, it's the way the Penguins are losing: They were up early in Columbus last Saturday, also up in Philadelphia the next day, and certainly up big time here on Tuesday night -- and lost all three.

It's a sign of a team that's mentally fragile.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau's short-handed goal for Ottawa at 14:41 of the second period Tuesday night -- a lucky bounce that went off Pouliot -- completely changed the complexion of the game.

"They got that bounce there and it really gave them a lot of momentum going into the third, I thought," said Crosby, who had a team-high six shots. "But even with that, we knew they would come hard -- Fleury [Marc-Andre Fleury] made some big saves, we just made some mistakes that ended up in our net. We just didn't find a way to get those stops in terms of blocking shots or getting it out of our zone.

"We have got to find a way that when we get a lead, we make sure we shut it down."

Can the Penguins stop the nightmare? They host the New York Islanders on Friday night before wrapping things up Saturday at the Buffalo Sabres.

"It's tough. You can't hide your disappointment," veteran Pens defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "But you can throw away the season and forget the last two games, or you can dust yourself off and try to get in. It's certainly not the way you would have hoped to have played the last four to five weeks and be in this position. But we're here, it's in front of us, and we still have a chance. I know that I'm willing to do what it takes to try and get us in."

Whether the Pens get in or not, as one NHL scout working Tuesday's game quipped, "They're one-and-out in the first round, in my mind."

Harsh, but who would argue given their state right now?

And if that happens, what will the fallout be for this organization? The Penguins already fired the GM and coach a year ago.

You have to believe either missing the playoffs or a first-round exit could lead to serious questions regarding the roster.

Is it finally time to trade Evgeni Malkin, for example?

As crazy as it sounds, I think it's the kind of talk you'll hear if the Penguins don't turn this around and have a decent playoff run.

And Tuesday night's debacle suggests there's no such run coming.