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Penguins rally for point in loss

| Friday, March 13, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There existed a noticeable buzz that engulfed this city much of Thursday, and through most of a hot-ticket hockey game last night, it fueled the deafening noise made by a frenzied record-crowd of 19,167 at Nationwide Arena.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This game against the Penguins, for which not a ticket was available at face-value for months, provided proof that their fans are postseason-ready.

Of course, it also proved that the rest of the NHL better start to beware the once-again never-say-die Penguins.

Count a 4-3 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets last night as a quasi-win — at least in terms of the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

Third-period goals from defenseman Sergei Gonchar, winger Pascal Dupuis and center Max Talbot erased a three-tally deficit, and the Penguins earned a point they had no right to count upon through 47 minutes of regulation.

"We played with fire tonight ... so we've got to be happy to come out with a point," Dupuis said.

"It was a pretty good hole we dug for ourselves, let's be honest," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, in reference to the Penguins' position in the standings, 10th and five points from a playoff spot, after a 27-25-5 start that cost coach Michel Therrien his job in mid-February.

They are 9-1-2 since under interim coach Dan Bylsma, who said last night he "would've taken" their current state.

The Penguins (36-26-7, 79 points) currently own a playoff spot, and they open a franchise-record eight-game homestand Saturday against Ottawa at Mellon Arena.

"We've given ourselves a better chance (at the playoffs) than we would have been looking at a while ago," said captain Sidney Crosby, who recorded two assists last night. "It's up to us ... but we've got to take advantage of it, too.

"It's a good scenario."

Much of last night was far from good, said defenseman Mark Eaton of the Penguins' many own-zone turnovers. Columbus was credited with seven takeaways, and the Penguins registered three giveaways.

"We really got away from playing the way that has made us successful over the past month," Eaton said. "So we can learn from that, even if we got a point."

The Blue Jackets (35-27-6, 76 points) claimed a 3-0 lead on goals from left wing Kristian Huselius, and centers Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette.

Huselius scored his 19th at 8:42 of the first period.

Williams benefited from an intercepted behind-the-net pass attempt by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whom he beat with a backhand shot at 16:59 of the second after receiving the picked-off puck from Vermette. It was Williams' 15th goal and a 2-0 lead for Columbus.

That lead swelled to 3-0 at 1:03 of the third period on Vermette's 10th goal.

Few of the roughly 2,500 Penguins' fans in attendance were counting on a comeback when Gonchar scored his fourth goal at 8:33.

Perhaps they were slightly optimistic of a full rally after Dupuis' 10th goal only 1:20 later.

However, by the time Talbot tallied his 10th at 11:58, well ...

"It sounded like our fans were expecting us to win it at that point," Orpik said. "It's one of those things where we didn't play very well for two periods, but after that first goal, you could sense that we started to feel it."

Oh, they're feeling it all right - feeling a third consecutive playoff berth, improbable as it may have seemed a month ago.

"The biggest thing is our attitude," Orpik said. "That's what I pin this (successful stretch) on. We have a positive attitude again.

"If you told anybody on this team a few weeks ago we'd be in this position going home like this, we'd have taken it. Now, we've got to take advantage of it, or all of this will be for nothing."

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