It was a game that ended 9-3 in favor of the New York Islanders, one that the hockey world is buzzing about – but not because of the final score.
What took precedence last night were the physical blows that resulted in over 300 penalty minutes, with the Pens taking six game misconducts. By the final minutes of the third period, it bordered on comical to watch Pittsburgh’s numbers dwindle, until two players remained on the bench with four on the ice.
Defenseman Kris Letang put it simply.
“It was Wrestlemania,” he said, referring to the popular pro-wrestling event. “It was a mess.”
In the first period, goals from defenseman Travis Hamonic and forwards Jesse Joensuu, PA Parenteau and Michael Grabner gave the Islanders a 4-0 lead.
The Isles seemed to have picked up momentum after the first goal when AHL call-up Micheal Haley fought Penguin forward Craig Adams. Forward Eric Godard battled the Isles’ Trevor Gillies as the period came to a close. At the time, two fights in 20 minutes seemed a little unusual.
As the second period hit the three-minute mark, John Tavares and Haley scored two goals in thirty seconds, prompting Pens Head Coach Dan Bylsma to replace backup goaltender Brent Johnson with Marc-Andre Fleury, who had been resting following an overtime win against Los Angeles the night before.
A big problem the Pens and their goaltenders faced throughout the night was the Isles’ ability to break away with the puck and find the back of the net repeatedly.
Just 5:21 into the period, however, is when a whole new beast was born.
Islanders forward Matt Martin attacked Pens forward Maxime Talbot, in what can be assumed was retribution for his hit on Blake Comeau in their last meeting on February 2nd that left Comeau with a concussion. The resulting melee saw six players take game misconducts: Penguins Pascal Dupuis, Deryk Engelland and Mike Rupp as well as Islanders Hamonic, Martin and Josh Bailey.
“The first half of the game was a hockey game,” Bylsma said. “The second was not.”
The Pens were at found themselves on the (somewhat) positive side of the chaotic equation, as Letang and forward Jordan Staal each scored a power play goal. Assists went to Alex Goligoski, Brett Sterling, and Tyler Kennedy. However, before the period was up, Matt Moulson scored twice for Isles (once on a 5-on-3 when Godard and defenseman Zybnek Michalek were sent to the box) and it was an 8-2 game after 40 minutes.
And then came the third period.
“I certainly didn’t anticipate the third period looking like that,” said Bylsma. “At that point we were going out to play and play hard and not put our heads down and feel sorry for ourselves or anything else. I wasn’t expecting quite what we got.”
What they got was an angry Islanders team willing to take advantage of a six-goal lead to exact their revenge on the Penguins. What likely enraged them more than the Talbot-Comeau situation earlier this month was the fight between Johnson and goalie Rick DiPietro in the same game. DiPietro ended up with facial fractures that would sideline him for at least a month. The Pittsburgh bench was openly amused by the unusual clash of the netminders in which their side prevailed, unaware that they were literally adding insult to injury.
In the third period alone, over 200 penalty minutes were handed out.
Gillies got Pens forward Eric Tangradi with an elbow, adding another possible concussion to the Pittsburgh roster.
“Eric was checked out by their doctors and did pass the initial test, but has some concussion symptoms at this point in time,” said Bylsma.
Gillies allegedly taunted Tangradi as he was being treated on the ice, something the team will not likely forget when they’re back on Long Island in April.
When Haley engaged Johnson (who was placed back in net for the third), Godard leapt from the Pens’ bench and into action to defend his goalie, which got him a double game misconduct. It has been reported that Bylsma will face suspension and a fine for this, but no official word has come from the Penguins to confirm.
“(Haley) just came down. I don’t know. It’s all a blur right now,” said Johnson. “It’s one of those things in hockey that just kind of happens. I feel responsible for some of the bad stuff that happened to us early on and this is one we have to put behind us.”
“I don’t know what they were so frustrated about,” Pens defenseman Brooks Orpik told reporter Rob Rossi. “Johnny got into a fight with their goalie (in the last game) who was very willing, and you’ve got guys like Trevor Gillies who are out to hurt people. The league takes care of all that stuff, and I’m sure they will.”
The clock was stopped for quite a while as officials struggled to make sense of the violence and dole out proper punishment. Ultimately, Adams, Godard, Gillies and Haley were all ejected from the game.
Tyler Kennedy scored a power play goal assisted by Letang and call-up forward Joe Vitale. Grabner would later answer with a shorthanded goal, bringing the final score to 9-3, but no one was looking at the scoreboard anymore. The rest of the period was dominated by flying fists, and as players took penalties that would outlast the game, they were sent to the locker room. The Penguins, by the end, were a team of six.
Out of this mess did come some good. While spirits were broken and bodies were sore, the Pens’ unity as a team was reinforced.
“When you see a teammate getting hit or something happening to a teammate, you stick up for them,” said Letang.
“The boys did a great job of, when stuff did happen like that, backing each other up,” said Staal. “Our team did a great job of sticking together and doing the right thing when we needed to.”