Losing a game, the Penguins could have lived with.
Hey, it happens.
Even at home. Even when you have a 54-30 edge in shots.
But not after building a 3-0 lead. Not when the stakes are this high. Not when losing could cost so much more than just a victory in their opening-round playoff series against Ottawa.
Fact is, losing Game 2 of their first-round series against Ottawa under those circumstances could have done serious damage to their confidence, maybe sabotaged their entire post-season.
The Penguins will never know for sure, though, because Ryan Malone's power-play goal with 62 seconds left in regulation broke a 3-3 tie and made their 5-3 victory against the Senators at Mellon Arena possible.
The Penguins have a 2-0 lead in the series, which resumes Monday at 7:08 p.m. in Ottawa.
And while Malone insisted that, "I don't think we really thought about losing," it's not a stretch to suggest that the psychological impact of losing could have dwarfed its considerable practical implications.
Think the Senators, who gave up the first seven goals of the series and didn't score for more than 91 minutes, wouldn't have gotten a major boost after finding a way to win a game that had seemed lost, especially with the series shifting back to their home turf?
"A three-goal deficit is pretty tough to come back from on the road," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "They did a pretty good job of chipping away."
A great one, actually, and Senators goalie Martin Gerber deserved much of the credit for making his team's comeback possible.
He stopped 49 of 53 shots, as the Penguins set a franchise record for a regulation playoff game by ringing up 54 of them. The previous mark, 49, was set April 26, 1970 against St. Louis.
"Gerber made some stops that allowed us to stay in the game," Senators coach Bryan Murray said.
But he couldn't reject the chance Malone got as the third period was winding down, when he collected a Marian Hossa rebound and carried it around the net before tucking the puck inside the right post.
"I saw Gerber out a little too far," Malone said. "So I tried wrapping it around, and it ended up going in."
The winner was made possible when Senators winger Martin Lapointe, trying to lift the stick of Penguins winger Jarkko Ruutu, clipped him with a high stick at 18:46 of the third period.
"It's in the rulebook," Ruutu said. "A high stick is a high stick."
While Ruutu said Lapointe's stick got him "right in the eye," Lapointe insisted that he didn't make contact with anything except Ruutu's equipment.
"You don't want to high-stick a guy in the face," he said. "I don't think I did. Maybe I caught him in the helmet."
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin set up the Penguins' first three goals, giving him six points in the series. That's two more than he had in five games against the Senators in Round 1 a year ago.
Sergei Gonchar gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead when he scored during a five-on-three power play at 16:10 of the first period, and Malkin and Petr Sykora teamed up on their next two goals.
Sykora worked free at the left side of the crease and steered in a cross-ice pass from Malkin at 5:22 of the second, then got a feed from him at 10:52 and scored from above the right dot.
"We were up, 7-0, in the series, and maybe we thought it was going to be easy," Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said, referring to the goal total. "But there's not going to be an easy game to win in the playoffs. That's not how it works."
Not last night, certainly. Ex-Penguin Shean Donovan got the Senators' first goal of the series when he steered a Chris Neil feed behind goalie Marc-Andre Fleury 33 seconds after Sykora's second goal, and Cory Stillman jammed a shot between Fleury's legs during a power play at 16:11.
Cody Bass pulled the Senators even at 8:51 of the third, taking a pass from Penguins alum Randy Robitaille and punched in his own rebound for his first career playoff goal.
"They scored some goals by crashing the net," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "This is something we are going to address."
The Senators have lots to talk about, too. Like how they battled their way back into Game 2. And how, in the end, it didn't really matter.
"Maybe it's even more deflating for them to come back and tie it up," Orpik said. "Then lose it the way they did."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published April 12, 2008 4:00 AM