Since the start of the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been wearing T-shirts with the No. 4 on the back and the words, “Here We Go” – a reminder that, although the team has assembled a roster with clear designs on winning the Stanley Cup, the journey had to start with four wins.
Saturday night at Long Island, the Penguins got a fourth win in a playoff series for the first time since 2010, defeating the New York Islanders 4-3 in overtime to take the series, 4-2, and advance to face the Ottawa Senators in the second round.
But the Islanders didn’t make it easy for the Penguins. And the Penguins didn’t make it easy on themselves.
The younger, less-experienced Islanders had played like the hungrier team for much of the series and, facing elimination in Game 6 on their home ice, came out with an extra level of desperation. Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun, earning a second consecutive start in place of struggling Marc-Andre Fleury, spent most of the first two periods under siege as New York outshot Pittsburgh 12-7 in the first, then 16-6 in the second. In that second frame, in fact, it took the Penguins half the period to record their first shot on goal.
But the Penguins found a way. Down by a goal on three separate occasions, they came back to tie it each time. Vokoun stood tall, stopping 35 of 38 shots – the Penguins had just 21 by comparison – and keeping the scoreboard from reflecting how badly Pittsburgh was being outplayed for much of the contest.
“They certainly had shots and zone time, shots from the point with traffic, so there were some pretty scary moments in that regard, but Vokie stayed really strong as the game went on,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “And, in the third period, when we were pushing and activating our defense, we gave up a couple real good scoring chances, two-on-ones, where he made gigantic saves for us, keeping it at a one-goal game. Those were huge moments for us that allowed us to get the [tying goal] and, eventually, the winner.”
And, as is so often the case in the postseason, there were unlikely heroes:
- defenseman Paul Martin, resurgent this year after declining the opportunity to move on over the offseason, got the game-tying goal with 5:16 remaining to force overtime;
- fellow blueliner Brooks Orpik, who hadn’t scored in 112 games and never in the playoffs, blasted the game-winner through traffic and into the net at 7:49 of overtime;
- forward Tyler Kennedy, a healthy scratch for the first four games of the series, teed up Orpik for the shot, then headed to the net to create traffic; and
- star forward Evgeni Malkin, tied for the league lead in playoff points but guilty of some glaring turnovers and other mistakes during the series, made a spectacular individual effort to beat four Islanders and get the puck to Martin on the game-tying goal, then started the play that led to the game-winner.
In the end, Orpik said, the Islanders’ lack of playoff experience might have been the difference.
“The last 10 minutes of regulation, you could see them tighten up a bit,” said the Penguins alternate captain. “We definitely sensed that and talked about it after the third period. It was a situation they’d never been in, and I remember my first playoff series – as good as you are, you’re still young and, I think a lot of times, you overlook the experience factor. This is a group that battled us really hard and they’re probably really disappointed right now, but they’ll be better for it in the years to come.”
The experience factor also helped the Penguins find the poise to ride out the Islanders’ dominance and continue trusting in themselves.
“I think we were good at making adjustments, but also just sticking with it,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “Even when you’re playing well, they’re going to have shifts where they carry the play. I think we were just a little bit more patient. We didn’t get too frustrated and, obviously, it would’ve been easy tonight with the amount of chances, especially in the second [where] we kind of got away from our game. We just stuck with it and trusted that we’d eventually find a way to get ourselves back in.”
For the Penguins, the best part of winning Game 6 was not having to come back to Pittsburgh to face the Islanders Sunday in a winner-take-all Game 7.
“Best feeling ever,” Vokoun said of his reaction to Orpik’s game-winner. “I was pretty tired, so just a joyful feeling. Obviously a hard-fought game, and I’m just glad it’s over and we move on.
“We’re glad we don’t have to play them tomorrow. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit – they played a great series, they played really hard, they’re an up-and-coming team. They gave us everything we could handle.”
And, after exiting the playoffs in the second, first and first round, respectively, in the three years since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have taken the first step toward battling that recent, disappointing history.
“I think we fought it a little bit,” Bylsma said. “One of our focuses was not thinking about what happened last year or past experience, but just [being] excited to win and go out there. And I think at times in this series, we didn’t play like that. The first half of this game, in particular, they were the aggressor. They played extremely well, came at us and forced us. They did that at different times of this series; it was an all-out battle they gave us. And when, in the third period, we got on our toes and started playing aggressively, that’s how we need to play.”
For the players, however, any demons from the past few years aren’t making their way to the dressing room.
“I don’t think that’s been discussed in here at all,” Orpik said. “I know you guys write a lot of stuff about that and we’re aware that we haven’t [won] a series. But this is a completely different group of guys. We added a lot of guys here, and this group hasn’t lost a series yet.”