'We showed that we're back'
OTTAWA -- Until the moment when Pascal Dupuis ripped a rolling puck through Ottawa netminder Pascal Leclaire 9:56 into the first overtime period, we didn't really know if all that hockey finally caught up with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Were they going to find that other gear they seemed to summon up so often last spring en route to the team's first Cup championship since 1992?
Or would they buckle?
Having battled back from a 3-0 second-period deficit to tie the score, the Penguins were still facing the prospect of heading home for a Game 7 if they couldn't close the deal Saturday night against an Ottawa Senators team that refused to take a knee.
"It's playoffs. They don't want to go away," Dupuis said after his goal gave the Penguins a 4-3 win and 4-2 series victory. "It's human nature. You play for your life and you're a desperate hockey club, and they were again tonight and they've played well and battled hard."
Then, Dupuis added what people were wondering throughout much of this hard-fought series: "I think we showed that we're back."
The win marks the fifth straight series the Penguins have closed out on the road. Captain Sidney Crosby said Saturday finally produced a level of desperation that perhaps hadn't been there through the first five games, and especially in a Game 5 triple-overtime loss that seemed to alter the personality of this series.
"We didn't hand it to them, it went three overtimes," said Crosby. "But, at the same time, I still think our desperation could have been a little better. It was good at times and it wasn't where it needed to be at times."
We were in Philadelphia on a Saturday a year ago when the Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves in a similar situation. They had failed to close out the Flyers in Game 5 at home and then fell behind early in Game 6 by three goals. Wachovia Center was rocking, just as Scotiabank Place was on this night with the Senators up 3-0.
On that afternoon in Philly, the Penguins tied it on a couple of pucks batted out of mid-air by Mark Eaton and Crosby and another by Ruslan Fedotenko off a scramble in front before finishing the game off with a Sergei Gonchar blast and an empty-net goal from Crosby. There were other moments, of course, after that game in Philadelphia. But it was the first to announce the Pens were somehow more galvanized after losing to Detroit in the Cup finals the season before.
"You get hit with a punch in the gut and you don't know how hard it's going to be," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after that game a year ago. "They put up a huge fight. They played great hockey against us and certainly challenged us."
His message Saturday night in Ottawa was much the same.
"We had to keep responding and we got tested for sure, and you saw the quality of our team and the character of our team," Bylsma said. "Sidney had a great series, but in the end in a game like this, it was not just our star players."
It was Matt Cooke finding the puck in a crowd and lifting it over Leclaire just 1:08 after Daniel Alfredsson scored the Sens' third goal midway through the second period. After a disputed Mike Fisher goal that would have made it 4-1 Sens (it was ruled the net had come off the moorings before the puck crossed the line) and subsequent penalty kill, it was Bill Guerin sending a laser past Leclaire on the power play to make it 3-2. Cooke then tied it midway through the third.
"One of the things we talked about going into the playoffs is maintaining the focus and staying unflappable whatever comes our way, whether it's us losing a game or situations in a game," Bylsma said. "Tonight was probably our best game in that regard. Our bench was rock-solid and focused."
One of the challenges facing the Penguins in repeating -- beyond beating four good hockey teams -- will be the constant comparisons to last season. We see this game and think instantly of that Flyers series. So, too, did some of the players.
"It didn't come up, but it's funny you said that," Craig Adams said. "It was in the second period I was thinking during that long goal review, I was thinking that would be nice if it turned out the same way. But I kind of had that feeling, you know?"
"Maybe just the attitude was similar," added defenseman Brooks Orpik. "Guys were really calm on the bench. Coaches weren't yelling and screaming, they were really composed. You just kind of had that feeling."
There will be times when last season may seem like a bit of a burden, like the younger sibling constantly being compared to the older one, the one that's always perfect. But last season will also be a comforting companion, too, a reminder of the things that are possible. Like erasing three-goal leads to win a series.
"I think there have been questions from outside our locker room about getting to our game and inconsistencies," Bylsma said.
On this night, those questions were answered.
"I think it's a true sign of the team, what we've done in the past, but also what we are this year in terms of being unflappable and how we want to play," Bylsma said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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