Tied 2-2 in their series with the New York Islanders – and fortunate to not be down 3-1 given how they’d played in the last three contests – the Pittsburgh Penguins made a number of changes going into Game 5.
They added forwards Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale and defenseman Simon Despres to the lineup to help counter the Islanders’ backbreaking speed. They modified their breakout to help cut down on the turnovers New York has been feasting on. And they gave veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun, who they signed last summer for just such a situation, the start.
All of those decisions paid off in the Penguins’ most decisive victory since Game 1, a 4-0 win they earned the right way to take a 3-2 series lead.
“We were stronger on the puck and won our battles,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think we executed a lot better coming out of our own zone as well. I think when we got in trouble in the past, we’ve made mistakes coming out of our end and they’ve hemmed us in there for a while. I think we did a great job of keeping the puck in their end and generating a lot of chances off the cycle. That’s more the style we know we need to play.”
The Penguins got off to a slow start in an almost cautious, scoreless first period that saw the Isles outshoot their hosts 14-7. “I thought we probably could’ve been a little more aggressive in the first,” Crosby said. “[We weren’t] sitting back, but I think we were making sure that we stayed well in our structure and didn’t make mistakes.”
In a 6:35 span of the second period, however, the Penguins would score three times to take a commanding, 3-0 lead – and the man who started it was one who had been a healthy scratch toward the end of the regular season and into the postseason.
“I just jumped on the ice and saw what was unfolding in our end and kind of just snuck behind their D,” Kennedy said. “Tanger [defenseman Kris Letang] made a great pass and I was just glad to get it.”
“TK’s goal was huge,” Crosby said. “Even the way he played all night, he generated a lot of energy, [and] Joey V – those guys really set the tone for our team. You see it time and time again in the playoffs, different guys step up, and those guys were huge for us tonight.”
The Penguins continued to adjust throughout the game, shuffling lines and special teams to generate a spark, then playing smarter, calmer hockey with the lead.
“More than the score ending up 4-0, I liked that we stayed patient and we stuck with our game,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
Part of that was thanks to the solid presence of Vokoun, who hadn’t started a playoff game since 2007 with the Nashville Predators. The 36-year-old netminder stopped 31 shots to earn the shutout – and, though Bylsma wouldn’t tip his hand – a likely start in Saturday’s Game 6.
“I thought in particular, in the first period and early in the second, he made a number of key stops when they had some good opportunities,” Byslma said. “He made some huge saves for us and was real solid down the stretch.”
“Hopefully we didn’t make things too tough on him,” Crosby said. “I think we didn’t go a great job of helping Marc[-Andre Fleury] out and wanted to make sure we did a better job in front of our goalie, and keeping the puck down in their end a little more.”
The Penguins hope to keep that focus Saturday on Long Island, where they’d like to close out the series and avoid giving the resilient Isles the chance to come back to Pittsburgh for a decisive Game 7.
“That’s what we’re going there to do,” Bylsma said. “This was an extremely big game, our home game to start this best-of-three off, and we got the win. Now, we have to be really focused on going there with our best game, be ready for that environment and be ready for their absolute best. We have to be at our absolute best and close this thing out.”
“[Tonight] we needed to play better than we have all series,” Crosby said. “We’ve got to go out there with the same mentality and find a way to win. We know the biggest test is yet to come.”