For about 56 minutes Tuesday night, it seemed like the Penguins were on their way towards a third straight loss, and a questionably flat loss to Colorado.
But then, a switch flipped.
The Penguins got a goal from Bryan Rust with 3:38 to play, and an overtime winner from Kris Letang — with both goals following penalty kills — to drop the defending Stanley Cup champions, 2-1, at PPG Paints Arena.
“Good teams find a way,” said goalie Casey DeSmith, who made 41 saves. “We were down one goal, we came out hard. We played a lot in their zone (in the third period) and, thankfully, we were rewarded.”
The Penguins failed to record a shot on goal until there was 8:40 left in the first period, and trailed in shots 8-0 before that, with the Avalanche controlling the play from the opening face-off.
"I thought Colorado was the better team in the first half of the game, for sure,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “Casey (DeSmith) made some big saves, held us in there.
“As the game went on, we got better. Our third period was our best, by far. I like our stick-to-itiveness.”
The Penguins played on their heels for much of the night, particularly in the first two periods. But DeSmith racked up the most saves he’s made in a Penguins win since his 52-save shutout of Boston last April.
“Phenomenal,” Rust said of his goalie. “That’s it. Phenomenal. One word. Phenomenal.”
Pittsburgh gained momentum in the third period, and seemed to really be sparked by a late penalty kill after Rust went to the penalty box for hooking.
When the kill ended, Rust burst out of the box and got a shot off. He misfired, but the Penguins — and the crowd — seemed to have significant life for the first time in the game.
“The PK tonight was outstanding,” Letang said. “(Colorado is) pretty dangerous out there. They have so many skilled players with great shots. Casey and the PK were great and they gave us a chance to win tonight.”
Shortly after missing the net, Rust found it. Well, Rust’s skate did, to be exact.
From behind the net, Evgeni Malkin banked a puck off of Rust’s skate, then off of Colorado goalie Pavel Francouz, and into the net to tie the game.
The Penguins, who have struggled in overtime periods this season, then killed another Colorado power play in the extra frame.
“That whole 4-on-3 power play, they had some high powered guys out there, but especially (Nathan) MacKinnon,” said forward Josh Archibald, who played his first game in over a month. “He can trick you going one way, then go back the other. He’s pretty dynamic and someone to watch for.”
Letang followed the kill, and a wild net-front scramble, with his fifth goal of the season, giving the Penguins the much needed, yet somewhat improbable win.
"He's had a tough first half in so many different ways,” said Sullivan of Letang, who has missed extended time with injury, a stroke and the death of his father this season. “So when he scores big goals like that, I know it makes him feel good. It makes our whole team feel good."
The challenge, now, is building on that third period and overtime. The team has a four-game road trip coming, with the next three against the California-based teams.
“Just try to get more of the same in the third period,” Rust said. “We’ve been harping on consistency. We’ve got to walk the walk here, and put that in motion.
“For us, to come out of the break knowing we had to be better to come out with this kind of win against a really good team, it’s definitely a really good stepping stone.
“We’ve got to learn some lessons from this. But consistency is key right now.”