BOSTON --The Penguins haven't won a game in regulation in more than a month and were playing a team that had won seven games in a row.
With barely a half-minute left in regulation, they were protecting a one-goal lead and had a chance to clinch two points by scoring into an empty net.
Matt Cooke's shot at the empty net was blocked, Boston took the play to the other end of the ice and scored a goal that put the game into overtime.
Because while playing beyond the third period has become a pretty tired story line for the Penguins lately, Dustin Jeffrey rewrote the ending this time, scoring on a sensational individual effort at 1:52 of overtime to give them a 3-2 victory against Boston Saturday night at the TD Garden.
Jeffrey picked off a pass by Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg in the neutral zone, wheeled into the Bruins' end and got by Seidenberg, then went to the net and flipped a shot past goalie Tim Thomas.
And, in the process, raised the Penguins' record to 38-21-8, which puts them just two points behind first-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference.
Oh, they're still a long shot to overtake the Flyers, who have three games in hand, but, for a team that has picked up so many of its points individually -- imagine trying to build a sandy beach, one grain at a time -- the Penguins have sculpted a pretty nice niche for themselves in the conference.
Suddenly, it doesn't seem to matter so much that they have more money invested in guys marooned on injured-reserve than some franchises do in their entire major league roster.
That, because of those injuries, they've had to sometimes give big-minutes roles to guys who were replacements for replacements.
They're not nearly the team that they would be if their lineup was intact, but they're not one that anyone's looking to schedule for homecoming, either. They compete and scrap and fight all over the ice, and every now then, they get a second point to show for it.
"I really think we earned it," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We battled hard. It's been a stretch of hockey where we've had some close games. To come up with two [points] is big for us."
The intensity level was elevated from the earliest moments of play -- "They played hard, and I thought our team played exceptionally hard," Bylsma said -- but neither team scored until 7:26 of the second period, when Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara threw a wrist shot past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury presumably never saw the shot until he watched a replay, because Bruins forward Milan Lucic had parked himself directly in front of Fleury before Chara let it go.
For the second night in a row, however, the Penguins countered quickly.
Jordan Staal put in a Tyler Kennedy feed at 10:09 to cap a two-on-one break that Cooke triggered by swiping the puck from Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk near the Penguins' blue line.
Just 70 seconds later, Jeffrey put them in front, 2-1, taking a pass from Zbynek Michalek and beating Thomas from below the left hash.
That goal shaped up as the winner until David Krejci of the Bruins scored from the slot with 32.5 seconds left in regulation.
Krejci's goal never would have happened if Cooke had managed to hit the net Thomas vacated to get an extra attacker on the ice, but his shot was blocked by Boston defenseman Tomas Kaberle.
"It's tough," Cooke said. "It's not the first time it's happened. You have to try. It was just unlucky."
Unfortunate for the Penguins, too. At least until Jeffrey put an exclamation point on an outstanding personal performance by manufacturing the winner.
"He came out with a real strong effort, in every area of the game," Bylsma said.
So did his teammates. Again. This time, though, they got an extra point to show for it.
Something of a rarity, perhaps, but that's to be expected when a team has been missing so many key players, for so long.
Not that the ones still playing are inclined to make an issue of it.
"It's the situation we're in," Cooke said. "No one's looking for excuses. We want to go out and play to the best of our abilities, and that's what we've done."
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 6, 2011 5:00 AM