Playoff hockey returned to the Nassau Coliseum for the first time since 2007 Sunday afternoon and a sellout crowd of 16,170 was treated to a classic playoff performance. In a game full of momentum changes and strong performances by both teams, the Penguins escaped with a 5-4 win when Chris Kunitz scored a power play goal at the 8:44 mark of overtime. The win put the Penguins ahead in the best-of-seven series 2-1.
Early on, it was all Islanders. The fans were chanting and applauding their team more than an hour before the opening faceoff and the home team seemed to feed off the emotion.
Matt Moulson made it 1-0 Islanders just 1:43 into the game when he banged home the puck in the crease. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t quite control the puck and Moulson managed to beat the Penguins’ defense to the loose puck and put it home.
The Isles increased their lead to 2-0 on a goal by Casey Cizikas beat Fleury at 5:41. The play was actually set up by a great save by Isles netminder Evgeni Nabokov. He stopped Sidney Crosby after he faked out two Islander defenders to get an open shot. When the Isles headed back up ice, Michael Grabner found Cizikas and the Isles had the 2-0 lead.
The Islanders played an exceptional opening 12 minutes of the game. They were smart and disciplined in their own end, making the simple clearing play and tying up Pittsburgh’s forwards when they came into the Isles’ zone.
But the complexion of the game changed when that discipline broke down. The Isles started a parade to the penalty box that cost them the momentum and then the lead. First Mark Streit was called for hooking at 12:21. Just 34 seconds later, Travis Hamonic was called for tripping. The Penguins had a 5-on-3 power play and they took full advantage. First, Jarome Iginla scored at 13:18 of the opening period while Pittsburgh had a two-man advantage. Then, 19 seconds later, Evgeni Malkin set up the tying goal when he found Kunitz behind the Islanders’ defense. The Isles had dominated the first 12 minutes of the game and in 19 seconds, the lead they had worked so hard to accumulate was erased.
The Penguins broke on top for the first time on Pascal Dupuis’ third goal of the playoffs with exactly 1:00 left in the opening period. The Islanders had both Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky on the ice together and it cost them. Streit gambled and was caught up ice and then Dupuis used his strength to beat Visnovky for the puck down low near the Islanders goal. After on period, the Penguins held a 3-2 lead despite being outshot by the Islanders 13-8.
The game settled down in the second period. The checking got tighter and whistles were more frequent. Both teams seemed content to trade scoring chances. The only goal of the period was scored by defenseman Douglas Murray at 17:10 on a wide angle shot from the point. Again, Malkin set up the goal with a nice pass. The Penguins increased their lead to 4-2 after two periods.
During the first half of the season, the game would have been all but over, but this Islanders club refused to panic.
“We’ve been in that position before this season so we just wanted to stay with it,” Tavares said. “We were getting a lot of chances and just wanted to stay with it.”
The tide of the game turned again at the 5:31 mark with the Islanders shorthanded. Frans Nielsen made a long pass to Kyle Okposo and Okposo made an incredible play. First he fielded the pass off his own skates and managed to get it in front of himself in time to stay onsides. He then used his body to shield the defender from getting to the puck and beat Fleury to pull the Islanders to within a goal at 4-3.
The crowd came back to life after Okposo’s goal and so did the Islanders. Their hard work paid off as John Tavares tied the game 4-4 with 9:12 left on the clock off a nice play by Josh Bailey.
Both teams had chances to win the game in regulation with the Islanders carrying the play for large portions of the third period. New York outshot the Penguins 13-3 but the game headed to overtime.
In the extra period, a questionable penalty call on Brian Strait gave Pittsburgh a power play. Strait was called for grabbing Crosby who got the favorable call. Crosby then made a perfect cross ice pass during the ensuing power play to set up Kunitz for the game-winning goal at 8:44.
The Islanders were disappointed but hardly defeated by the latest loss. “We know what we have to do,” a determined Okposo said after the game. “We have good character in this room and we’re never out of it.”
“We’re right there,” Tavares added. “It’s a big game for us, Game 4 and we’ve got to get our work boots on and refocus. We believe in ourselves in here and I we’ve battled through a lot of adversity and a lot of ups and downs. This is part of playoff hockey.”
The series continues on Tuesday with Game 4 at the Nassau Coliseum. Islanders tickets for this and other games are available.
The Islanders lineup remained the same with Matt Carkner in for Thomas Hickey and David Ullstrom back in the lineup instead of Marty Reasoner.
Pittsburgh remained without James Neal and Brooks Orpik.
The power play was the difference in the game as the Penguins were 3-for-5 with the man advantage while the Islanders were 0-for-3.
The Islanders have now overcome two-goal deficits in both Games 2 and 3 of this series.