The New York Islanders probably deserved this one.
Through the better part of three games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed has played like a hungrier team than the No. 1. Sunday, returning home to Nassau Coliseum, the Isles fed off the momentum of earning a 1-1 split in Pittsburgh and their raucous fanbase, taking just 5:41 to build a 2-0 lead.
The Penguins came back to pour on four straight goals, but the Islanders refused to go away. In a 5:17 span of the third period, they stormed back to tie the contest and send it to overtime. They moved with speed through the neutral zone, notched a shorthanded goal and had the better of the offensive zone time throughout the contest, outshooting Pittsburgh 36-25, including a 13-3 advantage in the third period.
It didn’t matter, as Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz connected 8:44 into the overtime on a power-play goal that gave Pittsburgh a 5-4 win and 2-1 series lead.
“Going into overtime, our mentality was good,” Crosby said. “We weren’t dwelling on the fact that they came back; we knew we had overtime to change the outcome, get the win we wanted, and we were able to do that.”
Special teams were the difference in the contest, as the Penguins went three-for-five with the man advantage, including the game-winner. Crosby drew that penalty by charging to the net – an area where he’s shown no fear of going in two games since returning from a broken jaw – and getting wrapped up by defenseman Brian Strait, then contributed his third assist of the game on the overtime goal.
“I think the best setup he had was drawing the penalty,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “That’s kind of typical of what Sidney Crosby can do, just as a tough guy, a power forward. He draws the penalty by playing down low and going to the net there, then sets up the game-winning goal on the power play.”
The win meant the heavily-favored Penguins had escaped the fate of falling behind in the series, but by only the slimmest of margins.
“It was pretty emotional to be down [2-0] that early,” Crosby said. “I thought we did a great job of just staying with it. We’re not pleased with giving up a two-goal lead in the third period. We stayed composed and found a way, but that’s not something we can afford to do.”
“It’s not how we wanted the game to look,” said defenseman Douglas Murray, who scored the Penguins’ fourth goal with a laser shot to the upper corner of the net. “We don’t want a team to take control early like that, and we most definitely don’t want to give up a two-goal lead in the third. We’re happy with the win, but we obviously have to fix a few things.”
The Penguins pointed to the second half of the first period and the second frame as an example of how they want to play.
“We just executed better coming out of our zone. I think that’s been a big part of whether we’re successful or not,” Crosby said. “When we turn the puck over, they’ve got some guys that are fast and like to go the other way in a hurry, so we can’t give them a ton of opportunities to do that.
“In the second, we came out of our zone well, gave ourselves a chance to get on the forecheck. When you do that, you get chances and you tire them out, you wear them down and it’s tough for them to come the other way. That’s an area we have to continue to do better.”
Bylsma pointed to the Islanders’ speed and the long, quick plays they make as an area where the Penguins have to do a better job of limiting chances.
“They got a number of chances that way, including some of their goals,” Bylsma said. “We haven’t played our best, and we didn’t play our best with the lead today in terms of how we executed. We got back into this game and then we were able to find a way to win having given up the lead there, but we need to be doing a better job playing not just with the lead, but five-on-five as well.”
The Penguins also need to do better at getting pucks deep, a key part of their game that the Islanders have been effective at limiting over the past two contests. Islanders star center John Tavares exploited Pittsburgh’s failure to do that on the goal that sent the game to overtime.
“I think we stopped pushing forward, skating, putting pucks in,” Kunitz said. “They turn the puck up really quick, get odd-man chances. They bring pucks in and they’ve got quick guys who shoot the puck, get to the net. We’ve got to hang on to the puck and play in our end.”
Now, as the teams prepare for Tuesday night’s Game 4, both will have some frustration to handle along with strategy – the Islanders facing a must-win after a loss that could have easily gone the other way, and the Penguins having their hands full with a much less experienced but, so far, hungrier team.
“I think there’s still better hockey from our team,” Bylsma said. “The Islanders played really well; they’re very dangerous. They gave us a lot to handle and, as a group, we’re able to play better. It’s fortunate that we were able to gut out the win.”
“It’s the first to four, and we’re one game ahead of them right now,” Murray said. “I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s obviously huge.”