BUFFALO, New York (Ticker) -- In a spring full of overtime excitement, Darius Kasparaitis became one of the most unlikely heroes.
Kasparaitis scored his first playoff goal in more than a year 13:01 into overtime as the Pittsburgh Penguins rallied for a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in the decisive seventh game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
A hard-hitting defenseman who has dispensed more than his share of borderline checks, Kasparaitis trailed the play and took a pass from Robert Lang before surprising goaltender Dominik Hasek with a wrist shot from the top edge of the left faceoff circle.
The shot beat Hasek to the glove side, found room inside the right goalpost, ended the 23rd overtime of this year's playoffs and set off a wild celebration as Pittsburgh advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1996.
"I have no idea what I was thinking, I was just thinking to put the puck on the net," Kasparaitis said. "And when I shot it, I know I scored, but I don't remember what happened. I didn't even know how to celebrate it."
"It was a 3-on-2, he shot over my pad, under my glove," said Hasek.
Added Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, "The bottom line is we got beat up ice. Our forwards got beat up ice."
Kasparaitis had just three goals in 77 regular-season games and had not scored since March 16. His last playoff goal came in Game Five of last year's conference semifinals against Philadelphia.
One of the last off the bench to congratulate Kasparaitis was Mario Lemieux, the Penguins' owner who came out of retirement at the end of December.
"To be able to come out on top and have our sniper come through for us, Kasparaitis, was a great surprise and we are all very excited," Lemieux joked. "This is why I came back, to be able to be a part of the team and to live a dream, obviously. And hopefully we'll get to our dream, which is to win a Stanley Cup."
Jaromir Jagr was held without a shot but set up all three goals for Pittsburgh, which faces the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils on Saturday night in Game One of the conference finals.
The Sabres will have the whole summer to think about the third-period leads they squandered in each of the last two games. They were 78 seconds away from eliminating the Penguins on Tuesday before Lemieux tied it. Martin Straka scored the winner 11:29 into overtime.
"Going into the last game, I was thinking no way it was going to be over because we have so much expectation with Mario coming back," Kasparaitis said. "And I think when Mario tied the game and we went to overtime and Marty did his magic again, I think that was the turning point of the series."
On Thursday, Buffalo grabbed a 2-1 lead 32 seconds into the third period on Steve Heinze's power-play goal. But Lang tied it with 11 minutes left, forcing the third straight overtime in the series.
"It seemed like we couldn't hold the lead," Hasek said. "They've done the job. ... Something's wrong. We try hard, but you don't deserve to win in OT if you give up a goal (in the third period)."
This may have been Hasek's last NHL game, although he said afterwards he has not decided whether he will moved ahead with retirement plans.
"It's very possible, it's very possible," he added. "Right now, I'll think about the game. In a couple of weeks, I'll make a decision."
Pittsburgh had a 10-5 edge in shots and almost all of the good scoring chances in Thursday's extra period, improving to 3-2 in overtime in the postseason. The Penguins are 5-4 in Game Sevens.
The Sabres fell to 3-2 in overtime and 1-4 in seventh games.
"To lay it all on the line, to absolutely battle and scrape back to get to (three games to two), to end the way it did is pretty disappointing," said Buffalo center Stu Barnes. "We gave it everything we had. To get down (two games to none) like we did and to come back like we did, every single guy in this dressing room came out and played his heart out."
With the score tied, 1-1, Lang was penalized for high-sticking Dave Andreychuk in the final minute of the second period. Heinze converted on the ensuing power play, getting the shaft of his stick on Jason Woolley's slap shot from above the left circle and deflecting it down and between Johan Hedberg's pads.
Pittsburgh protested, arguing Heinze used a high stick, but the goal withstood a video review.
Lang made amends for his penalty 8 1/2 minutes later with his third playoff goal. Jagr threw a backhanded pass into the slot, but the puck deflected off Barnes, enabling Lang to chop it past Hasek and inside the left post.
"The goal that tied the game, I don't know what to say," Hasek said. "It's a lucky goal, but my defenseman throws his stick. That's the reason they scored the goal."
The Sabres had a chance to avoid overtime, but Hedberg was able to stretch out his stick and deny Vladimir Tsyplakov's stuff attempt with 1:39 left in regulation.
Buffalo had a 7-5 edge in shots in a scoreless first period and took the lead 1:50 into the second on J.P. Dumont's second goal of the series. Audette's shot from the right side was deflected in front and Dumont put a wrister past a sprawled Hedberg on the game's eighth shot.
Penguins defenseman Andrew Ference tied it on the power play at 8:19 after Chris Gratton got an extra roughing penalty for his part in a skirmish involving Doug Gilmour and former Sabres defenseman Bob Boughner.
Ference snapped a one-timer from the top of the slot inside the left post for his third playoff goal and second of the series.
Playing the final game of his 18-year career, Gilmour had a chance to break the deadlock but was stopped on a breakaway by Hedberg, who made 28 saves.