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Goaltender Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings reacts as Nicklas Lidstrom and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins watch the go-ahead goal scored by Sergei Gonchar.

Jim McIsaac/2009 Getty Images

They knew the task at hand and the odds against them surviving much longer in the Stanley Cup playoffs if they didn't win.

The Pittsburgh Penguins' playoff lives were on the line last night against the Detroit Red Wings - and even as they struggled and faltered at different times in the game - they found a way of squeezing out a victory.

Sergei Gonchar's power-play goal with 9:31 to play in the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and led the Penguins to a 4-2 win in the third game of the Stanley Cup final, reducing Detroit's lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1. Game 4 is tomorrow night.

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Max Talbot's second goal of the night into the empty net with 56.4 seconds to go iced the win, as the Penguins exploited Detroit's season-long inability to kill a penalty to get back in the series, scoring twice with the man advantage.

Detroit has given up 18 power-play goals in these playoffs, the one area in its remarkably efficient game that shows some signs of vulnerability.

There were only seven power-play chances combined in the first two games, a development that played to Detroit's strength. It wasn't as though referees Paul Devorski or Dennis LaRue were whistle-happy last night either, but an interference penalty by Jonathan Ericsson on Matt Cooke led to Gonchar's power-play goal - from the point, through traffic that looked as if it caromed off someone in front of the goal - past goaltender Chris Osgood.

That made Pittsburgh 2-for-3 with the man advantage. Detroit was 1-for-2.

"We need a net presence to make sure Osgood doesn't see the puck, and tonight we did a better job of it," said defenceman Kris Letang, who scored the first Penguins' power-play goal. "He's a great goalie, but he can't stop everything."

The Penguins were led by three assists from centre Evgeni Malkin, giving him 33 points in these playoffs. Malkin is the first player since Joe Sakic in the 1996 playoffs to score more than 30 points in the postseason - and the timing couldn't have been better for the Penguins, who needed to pull last night's game out of the fire, or risk falling behind 3-0 in the series.

There was nothing pretty about Pittsburgh's play in the first 40 minutes. On balance, they probably played better overall in each of the first two games, both of which they lost. On this night, Detroit played a near-perfect road game for two periods, only to surrender the winning goal in the third, as Pittsburgh's desperation level cranked up.

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Somehow, the hockey gods - after rewarding Detroit with a lot of crazy goals in the first two games - didn't give it nearly the same breaks last night.

Instead, the Penguins were saved once by a goalpost and another time by a crossbar. They also caught a break when they played with too many men on the ice for about 25 seconds, but didn't get penalized for it.

"Maybe we did get a break there and maybe that's what we needed," Talbot said. "Tonight, [the luck]was on our side. We got a good break on that six guys on that ice. We were really going, weren't we? We cycled the puck for a little bit. It was great.

"Yeah, we got some breaks, and it was huge."

Red Wings' coach Mike Babcock figured that his team may have won a game in Detroit earlier in the series in which it was outplayed and figured, "This series is where it should be."

It'd be hard to argue his point.

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Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen scored for Detroit, in a game that was tied 2-2 after a wide-open first period and then settled down into another defensive struggle.

Playing at home, the Penguins had the last change and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma did his best to get Sidney Crosby away from Zetterberg, whenever possible. It wasn't clear if that constant shuffling helped or hurt Crosby's game.

"You could see what Mike was trying to do with getting Zetterberg out there on a change every chance he could get," Bylsma said. "The one advantage we had tonight was, because they were trying to get Zetterberg out there so much, there were times when he got out there tired."

One such time was on Gonchar's winner, in which the Penguins hemmed the Red Wings in their zone for almost a hundred seconds, after Crosby won the draw from Zetterberg. Detroit crushed Pittsburgh in the faceoff circle in the opener; Crosby responded with a far better 12-7 record this time.

Even so, the Red Wings held a decisive 26-11 edge in shots after 40 minutes and, with a little more luck, could have pulled away after playing a dominating second period.

"Sometimes, the way we do things is, we look for fault," Babcock said.

"To me, there are two good teams playing real hard. They found a way to execute."

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