This is not what the Penguins had in mind, of course.
Nowhere near it.
But it likely is fitting that a series as compelling and competitive as their second-round showdown with Washington go a full seven games and, thanks to the Capitals' 5-4 overtime victory in Game 6 at Mellon Arena last night, it will.
David Steckel deflected a Brooks Laich shot past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 6:22 of overtime to tie the series, 3-3, and set up Game 7 at the Verizon Center at 7:08 p.m. tomorrow.
"There was a lot of [hype] before the series, and it's been everything it was made out to be," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "Let's just say, we're not at all surprised that it's going seven."
The winner of Game 7 will advance to the Eastern Conference final against the survivor of the Boston-Carolina series.
The Penguins have won five of nine previous Game 7s and are 3-0 in them on the road. Those victories came in Washington (1992), New Jersey (1999) and Buffalo (2001).
OVERTIME / 6:22: Capitals center Brooks Laich wins a faceoff in the Penguins' zone against center Max Talbot who has his stick break. Laich distributes the puck to Nick Backstrom near the left faceoff circle. Backstrom gives it back to Laich at the right point. Laich tosses a wrist shot at the crease. David Steckel is in front of the net wrestling with a defender and is able to tip the puck downward past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for the winning goal.
The Capitals, meanwhile, will go to a seventh game, all at the Verizon Center, for the third series in a row. Washington lost to Philadelphia in Round 1 in 2008 and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the New York Rangers in the first round this spring.
This in the second time this spring the Penguins failed to close out a series on their first try, both times on home ice. They lost Game 5 against Philadelphia in Round 1 before beating the Flyers at the Wachovia Center in Game 6.
"We have to work on our killer instinct," right winger Bill Guerin said.
Deflating as the loss was for the Penguins, dwelling on it isn't an option. Not when their entire season comes down to what happens tomorrow night.
"Our backs are against the wall," left winger Matt Cooke said. "There's no carryover."
With Sergei Gonchar still unable to play because of an injured right knee, the Penguins dressed Alex Goligoski and Philippe Boucher, giving them seven defenseman and 11 forwards for the second game in a row.
Coach Dan Bylsma said after the game that Gonchar "continues to show improvement," but declined to say whether he might dress for Game 7.
The way the game started, it looked as if Gonchar's short-term status might be moot, because the Penguins ran up an 18-5 edge in shots during the first 20 minutes and took a 1-0 lead on a Guerin goal.
"Pittsburgh wanted to beat us pretty bad in the first period," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They wanted to not make a game of it."
Maybe, but it didn't work out that way and second-period goals by Viktor Kozlov (6:27) and Tomas Fleischmann (14:42) put the Capitals in front until Mark Eaton scored from near the right hash at 19:26, the first of two power-play goals for the Penguins.
Kris Letang got the second of those at 4:40 of the third, but before the standing-room crowd of 17,132 could enjoy the Penguins' 3-2 lead, it was gone.
Alexander Semin tied the score with a man-advantage goal at 5:38 and, 29 seconds later, Kozlov got his second by beating Fleury from along the goal line to the left of the net.
"They were able to pop two on us pretty quick," Eaton said.
On the second of those, Fleury was trying to move back toward his net as Kozlov collected the puck, but couldn't get there because defenseman Hal Gill was behind him in the crease.
"I was going to come across and try to block the net and then I kind of bumped into [Fleury]," Gill said.
That goal looked to be the winner until 15:42, when Crosby knocked a Brooks Orpik shot from the left point out of the air and, after several tries, deposited it behind Capitals goalie Simeon Varlamov for the goal that forced overtime.
Rob Scuderi came within a millimeters of ending the series early in overtime when he put a shot off the crossbar, but Steckel's deflection gave the Capitals a season-extending victory and the Penguins reason to reflect on the importance of playing well for a full three periods.
"We're doing a lot of good things," Guerin said. "If we put 60 minutes together, we'll be a lot better off."
And if they don't, they'll probably just be off.
Dave Molinari can be reached at email@example.com . First Published May 12, 2009 4:00 AM