The surprising New York Islanders aren’t so surprising anymore. But, four games into their first-round playoff series, the Pittsburgh Penguins are still looking for answers on how to solve them.
“We’ve scored plenty of goals in this series and our power play has been opportunistic,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, following his team’s 6-4 loss at Long Island Tuesday. “It’s more [about] minimizing the opportunities for the other side and not letting it be an up-and-down game, that type of game that allows them all those chances to get back in, whether that’s how we manage the puck or a timely save.”
The Penguins didn’t get much of either in Game 4. And the Islanders found a way to capitalize on the turnovers, bounces and mistakes to make Pittsburgh play catch-up throughout the contest, erase two Penguins leads and, finally, go ahead for good to even the series at two games apiece.
“We got the lead twice and couldn’t keep it with unfortunate goals and goals that got behind Marc[-Andre Fleury], and that’s the story of that game,” Bylsma said. “It’s a little surprising [given] how we’ve played this year with leads, how we’ve been in one-goal games. You’re seeing more change of momentum in this series so far. They’ve been able to come back, and we’ve been able to come back, and we certainly want to be a much tighter group.”
That also goes for Fleury, who allowed six goals on 24 shots. The Penguins’ starting netminder was the victim of some bad bounces – like a shot that banked in off the skate of his own defenseman – and poor defensive play in front of him, but he simply wasn’t good enough when he needed to be. In one particularly tough example, he was out of position when the Islanders’ Kyle Okposo threw out a shot from behind the net that deflected in off Fleury with 1:24 remaining in the second period, turning what could have been a 3-2 Penguins lead at the intermission into a tie game.
“That was not a good goal,” Bylsma said. “That one hurt.”
Pittsburgh has a solid backup in Tomas Vokoun, who they signed last summer largely because of Fleury’s struggles over the past few postseasons, and there’s a good chance they’ll consider making a goaltending change for Thursday’s Game 5 in Pittsburgh.
“Certainly Tomas Vokoun’s a guy who can step in and play and has had success this year … but we’re not going to talk about our starting goaltender for Game 5 right now,” Bylsma said. “When you lose hockey games, you’ve got to look for answers and reasons why. We had swings in this game and some unfortunate bounces and some bad goals. But, at the end of the day, they end up getting six goals on us, and that’s way too many.”
As the Penguins regroup, they’ll have to ignore the voices of critics who are starting to make comparisons to their up-and-down, undisciplined first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers last year and wonder if this year’s team could be headed toward the same fate. They’ll also have to tune out any doubts that might be creeping into their own psyches.
“That’s something we’ve got to cut loose right now and get refocused and come out for Game 5,” Bylsma said. “Whether that’s giving up a bad goal or making a mistake in this game and giving them a game-winning goal, we’ve got to get back, and winning cures that.
“The playoffs are a different emotional level when it comes to adversity. Game 4 is a big game; 3-1 is a different element than 2-2, and they came back in this game and won. How we regroup and how we refocus and come out for Game 5 in what is now a best-of-three is really most important.”
The Penguins have no shortage of veteran presence in their locker room, and they’ll be looking to those players to help the club settle down in a series against a young, fast, opportunistic No. 8 seed that grows more confident with every win that they can topple a Stanley Cup favorite.
“We knew what we were up against; once you get in the playoffs, seeds and where you finished are out the door,” said forward James Neal, who returned from a Game 1 injury to score the Penguins’ first goal. “We knew we were in a series from Game 1, and you go game by game, let it go and focus on the next one.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys in this room who have been through this. We just need to regroup here, and we’ll come out ready to go and fired up in our own building.”