For the first seven-plus minutes of Game 2 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, it looked like the home team might roll to another comfortable win.
Captain Sidney Crosby returned from missing more than a month with a broken jaw and, by the 7:22 mark, had put home two goals, adding to Evgeni Malkin’s game-opening tally to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead.
Perhaps, said head coach Dan Bylsma, that early cushion made his club overlook the fact that the Islanders team that showed up Friday was already playing a much different game than the club the Penguins beat, 5-0, two days before.
“Getting goals early in this game – the score at that point was not indicative of how well they were playing, and it looked too easy,” Bylsma said. “They were playing a much better game, a much more difficult game on our team.
“I wouldn’t have even known the score was 3-1. They scored on the power play [to make it 2-1] and we got a goal right back on the next shift, but I don’t think it was indicative of how hard the game was and how well they played. And we saw that bear out as the game went on.”
By the end of the first period, the Islanders were outshooting the Penguins, 20-12, and continued to play hard through 60 minutes to chip away at Pittsburgh’s lead, then go ahead midway through the third period.
They took away the Penguins’ space, preventing them from getting pucks deep, forcing them into 11 turnovers, and dominating the puck possession and offensive zone time that are key to Pittsburgh’s system. They threw pucks at the net, getting bounces off bodies and the boards that paid off in opportunities and goals.
“Their transition and their speed the other way is quick, and when they get turnovers they come back at you, which they did very well tonight,” Bylsma said. “That was a big part of them getting the offensive zone time and getting the shot total [42 to the Penguins’ 33] up there.”
“We had our legs going. You could tell we were playing our game,” said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano. “Our guys were relentless. If we continued to play the way we played in the first period, I knew we’d get on the scoreboard; I knew we’d have some kind of success throughout that game. When we play that kind of hockey, we normally give ourselves a chance.”
The Islanders made adjustments to their lines from Game 1, but the biggest difference was a renewed confidence and commitment to the game that carried them to the postseason.
“I think you saw a little of a different team than you saw in Game 1,” Capuano said. “I thought we did a lot of good things tonight from a structural standpoint, and our work ethic, our physicality and our battle level were there tonight.”
And, as the game began to slip away, the Penguins failed to make adjustments to respond to what the Islanders were doing.
“We didn’t play well in the first period, but we had plenty of chances to turn things around and we didn’t,” said forward Craig Adams. “We just continued to play the way we were playing, which wasn’t good enough.”
The Penguins head to Long Island for Games 3 and 4 with a stark reminder that a No. 8 seed with limited postseason experience is very capable of beating a No. 1 seed loaded with star power and veteran leadership, if that top seed isn’t playing the right way.
“It’s the playoffs; you lose games sometimes. I think we’ve got to make sure we learn from this one pretty quickly, though,” Crosby said. “It’s not the way we want to play, and we definitely have room to improve.”
“They kept coming and playing well,” Bylsma said. “We were prepared for a seven-game grind and a series, and we’re now in one.”