The Penguins would have been embarrassed to ask for more favorable circumstances than those so graciously presented by the Ottawa Senators Wednesday night, although it probably wouldn't have matched for pure mortification the contorting of those circumstances into a third consecutive loss.
That the Penguins instead escaped with a 4-2 victory on home ice, thanks mainly to the sharpshooting brilliance of James Neal, was pretty much the least they could do.
This wasn't the kind of Ottawa Senators club that has so often been the junkyard dog hanging off the Penguins' leg, the kind of relentless opponent that has beaten them 13 times going back about six years while the Penguins were managing 12 wins over the same stretch.
No, these Senators arrived from their nation's capital in the middle of the night without Jason Spezza, their top line center, lost to back surgery; took the ice without veteran forward Milan Michalek; and limped to the locker room after two periods behind Norris Trophy-winning defender Erik Karlsson, who had been cut so badly in the middle period's final minutes that he could not continue.
The Senators late last night tweeted news of a lacerated left Achilles tendon. Karlsson, Ottawa's top goal-scorer, will be out indefinitely. Senators forward Chris Neil took that out on Matt Cooke right before the final horn, drawing a four-minute roughing penalty and a game-misconduct.
With every possible ounce of respect to the balance of the Senators roster, that's a club a good hockey team ought to beat pretty good, but with seven minutes left in the second period, Ottawa led the Penguins, 2-1, having overturned within 24 seconds a 1-0 lead established by Pascal Dupuis.
"We knew that they had some key guys not playing, but we just need to worry about us," said Neal, who rang up his ninth and 10th goals of the season. "We've got to do what we do best, and I think we did that tonight. We had a few tough shifts in our zone, but the way we bounced back tonight was good, and I think [Marc-Andre] Fleury was real good for us."
Fleury bounced back from two puzzling goals, one that hit him somewhere on the back off the stick of Stephane De Costa, the second a nondescript wrister by Jim O'Brien from the left circle that seemed to leak right through the Flower.
Fleury's most critical save on a night when he stopped 27 of 29 shots came soon after Neal's tying goal when he turned away a booming slap shot from the estimable Daniel Alfredsson with just 50 seconds remaining in the middle period.
The Penguins were killing the third Paul Martin penalty of the night (tripping, hooking, tripping), which was just a bit astounding when you consider that Martin had taken exactly one minor penalty in the club's first 13 games despite massive amounts of ice time ranging from 21 to 31 minutes per night.
The Penguins might have survived Martin's three minors in two periods and everything else without Neal, but they'll never know and they're not looking real hard at it.
Neal tied the score at 13:47 of the second with the Penguins' only power play goal in five attempts, taking a pass that would become Sidney Crosby's 400th career assist on the inside of the right circle and wristing it with exquisite precision past Ottawa's Craig Anderson, who was coming off a shutout of Buffalo just 24 hours earlier.
Anderson had been brilliant that game, stopping all 42 Buffalo shots, but in the second minute of the final period Wednesday night, he allowed a big fat rebound to leak to his left, where Neal rifled it to the net for that goal that would stand as the winner.
"I've often said if you're gonna make a book on a shooter and a guy getting open you'd just watch this guy play," head coach Dan Bylsma said about Neal. "Both 5-on-5 and on the power play, he moves to get open and he just pops out into that hole. He can get a shot off real quick and he just finds those spots that he drifts into. He seeps into them.
"And that release; it's an elite release."
Neal's second goal came on assists by Deryk Engelland and by Cooke, making his debut on the Neal-Malkin line after a chorus line of applicants failed to generate significant pointage. The original applicant, Eric Tangradi, found himself traded to Winnipeg for a seventh-round draft pick. His first career hat trick is scheduled for Friday night, when the Penguins visit the Manitoba wilderness.
The even bleaker northern landscape, however, remains in Ottawa, which came into this Penguins game with the same number of points (16) as the Stanley Cup favorites and hobbled away with a grim future.
"That's just a terrible injury [to Karlsson]; it's about as unlucky as you can get," said Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot.
"He's so big for us back there, and now everyone will really have to step up."
That'll be difficult because in these Eastern Conference standings, most people will be looking for Ottawa to step down.
Gene Collier: email@example.com.