Sometimes, the pivotal moment in a hockey game is evident only in retrospect, after a lengthy dissection of all that transpired.
And other times, there just isn't much mystery.
Like when a team manages to survive an opponent's four-minute power play midway through the third period with the score tied, then scores the go-ahead goal nine seconds after returning to full strength.
Such things don't happen often, but when a sequence like that does -- as it did in the Penguins' 2-1 victory Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals -- it's pretty hard to overstate the impact.
Certainly, it didn't escape the attention of the 18,653 fans assembled at Consol Energy Center.
Although there are a lot of times when crowds there make a gathering of Quakers seem downright raucous, when the Penguins killed off a double-minor to Matt Cooke, and Matt Niskanen scored the winning goal almost immediately, well, there was no need for the scoreboard's video screen to try to coax noise out of the faithful.
"That's as loud as it's been in a long time," Cooke said.
Almost as long as it had been since the Penguins (23-8) put together 10 consecutive victories, which matches the fourth-longest streak in franchise history.
They remain first in the Eastern Conference and have won eight consecutive games at home, tying the team's seventh-longest such run.
The Penguins played without defenseman Kris Letang, who is believed to have aggravated a leg problem in their 2-1 victory Sunday against Boston, and center Evgeni Malkin, who missed his sixth consecutive game with an apparent shoulder injury.
Cooke, who appeared to take a Dan Girardi shot off of his left foot in a 3-0 victory Saturday against the New York Rangers, sat out the morning skate but handled his usual workload, logging 13 minutes, 51 seconds of ice time.
He became a pivotal figure when he was penalized for boarding Alex Ovechkin at 7:49 of the third period.
"He just let his body go limp into the boards," Cooke said. "I didn't even hit him that hard. I think the video replay of that shows it pretty clearly."
The officials saw it differently, and when Cooke offered an unsolicited assessment that conflicted with theirs -- "It [was] a mistake by me," he said -- he was tagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
That put the Penguins down a man against a power play that began the game as the NHL's third most-efficient and had scored on one of three chances earlier in the game.
"It's not a very good feeling, sitting in the box when there are four minutes to kill," Cooke said.
But the penalty-killers and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury combined to keep Washington from grabbing a lead -- "Our penalty-killing had to come up huge for us," coach Dan Bylsma said -- and Cooke needed only seconds after leaving the box to get redemption.
He fed the puck to Matt Niskanen, who tossed it past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby from the right side of the slot at 11:58.
"I think that's one I'm more than capable of stopping," Holtby said.
Sidney Crosby's assist on Niskanen's goal was his second of the game, giving him his 200th multiple-point game and 100th multiple-assist game in the NHL.
Ovechkin put Washington ahead, 1-0, on a power play at 8:14 of the second period when he collected a Troy Brouwer rebound and put a shot off the left post and into the net behind Fleury.
The Penguins didn't need long to counter, however, as Paul Martin pulled them even on a power play at 11:07.
He got a pass from Crosby and drove a slap shot by Holtby from the top of the slot for his sixth of the season, tying his career high.
Martin's goal not only tied the score, but was the first the Penguins scored in their past three games against Washington when Malkin wasn't in the lineup.
That's not a bad statistical nugget, but a more significant one is that the Penguins have held their past six opponents to a total of six goals. Being more stingy is something they've stressed, and their efforts are paying off.
"We know we're going to score goals, with the guys in here," Dupuis said.
They just can't always know when it's going to happen.mobilehome - penguins
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @MolinariPG. First Published March 20, 2013 4:45 AM