It took more than four periods of hockey -- and a whole lot of attempts on Craig Anderson -- Thursday night in Game 7 against an Eastern Conference underdog, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are headed back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Two games after being pulled twice from a 7-0 blowout loss, Anderson nearly had his second straight 40-save night in the net for the Ottawa Senators, pushing the favored Pens and defending title winners into double overtime after falling behind on two occasions.
But the Pens, with a relentless offensive attack, got the winning goal from Chris Kunitz to lock up a return trip to the Final and a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions with a 3-2 decision.
A game after the Pens unloaded 46 shots against Anderson, neither team was overly successful in replicating action in front of the net, at least early on. Pittsburgh managed just six shots on goal in the first period, while Ottawa had just five shots at Matt Murray.
The defensive back-and-forth continued after a second-period strike from Kunitz put Pittsburgh up 1-0 -- and an immediate Senators response in the form of a Mark Stone goal just 20 seconds later. And while Guy Boucher's physical team failed to convert on a pair of power-play tries, an all-too-familiar issue for the Sens this postseason, it also kept up against Sidney Crosby and the speedy Pens, excelling in efforts to halt second- and third-chance shots in front of Anderson.
Ottawa's resiliency was the highlight of a thrilling third period, too.
Officiating went in both directions over the course of the Eastern Conference finals, with some Pens fans arguing that a goalie interference call from Tuesday's Game 6 ruined Pittsburgh's shot at putting away the Sens. And penalties resurfaced to play a role in the final period of regulation Thursday, this time benefiting the defending Stanley Cup champs on an interference call against Dion Phaneuf, whose flagged tussle with Phil Kessel was more the result of a dive onto the ice by the latter than any kind of blatant roughness.
Justin Schultz, returning to the ice for a banged-up Pens defense, promptly followed up the penalty with a strike past Anderson that gave his team a 2-1 lead. But the Sens wasted little time responding once again, knotting the game at 2-2 after Ryan Dzingel poked a clanking deflection of an Erik Karlsson slap shot past Murray, then holding down the fort and matching Pittsburgh's energy to send the nail-biter into overtime.
Kessel had a shot to play hero for the Pens once more in OT, breaking away with a one-on-one opportunity against Anderson before just missing the net on a shot as Ottawa's defensemen caught up. But the start of overtime was another quiet stretch in terms of shots on goal for both sides -- and only in that regard. With Pens sliding around on the ice and some desperate defense showcased by a puck kick from Kyle Turris in the crease, the contenders combined for just three shots on goal more than nine minutes into the extra period.
Keeping the PPG Paints Arena crowd on the edge of its collective seat with faceoffs in the Pens' defensive zone, Ottawa kept getting superb moves from Anderson in the net, halting a would-be game-winner from Bryan Rust toward the end of the first OT and standing strong against Pittsburgh's speedy, albeit assuredly tired, group even after a shot that appeared to touch the back of the net but actually went over it had Steel City roaring -- and throwing things on the ice -- in discontent.
The Sens' defensive success, highlighted by an exhaustive outing for a busy Erik Karlsson, could not carry Ottawa past Pittsburgh's big-play depth, however, as the toughness of Boucher's unit proved -- at least in some sense -- that it could not match the talent of the Pens' scorers.
With a little help from Crosby, Kunitz laced another one past Anderson to end the game in double OT, retaking the hero role for the night -- and the series -- to end an otherwise superb performance for Ottawa's goalie and push Pittsburgh back into the Stanley Cup Final after a hard-fought conference finals.
Nashville, here come the Pens.