After the Penguins’ deflating, 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders in Game 1, head coach Mike Sullivan said he knew his team had more to give. From the drop of the puck in Game 2, they set about proving him right.
“Going into this game, we knew every one of us needed to bring a higher level of execution and intensity,” defenseman Mike Matheson said.
Less than a minute and a half in, forward Brandon Tanev laid a thunderous offensive-zone check on the Islanders’ Brock Nelson that sent the crowd of 9,344, the most allowed into PPG Paints Arena this season, into a frenzy.
“That’s exactly what they did bring was energy,” said Matheson of Tanev’s line with Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese. “They all have great speed; they play physical, a hard game; they cycle the puck well; support each other well and just work like crazy. That’s really hard to play against.”
At 3:22, Isles defenseman Ryan Pulock flubbed the puck right to the Penguins’ Bryan Rust, a one-time big-game scorer who had only one goal in his last 15 postseason contests. Rust jumped on the opportunity and got off a shot so fast that New York goaltender Semyon Varlamov never even moved his glove. The Penguins had the early 1-0 lead.
A goal by veteran trade-deadline acquisition Jeff Carter at 13:07 of the opening frame padded the Pittsburgh lead to 2-0.
“When you get a lead like that against a tough opponent like the Islanders, it gives your team some juice,” Sullivan said. “I thought we were on our toes; we had a great start and we were playing physical when we had the opportunity. When you can get a couple of big goals like that with the fans in the building now, it just brings our energy to a whole other level. It was the start we were looking for; I give our players credit. They were ready to play.”
But the next level Sullivan was seeking from his club wasn’t just happening on the scoreboard.
There was Tanev being tripped on his way toward the net, sprawling into Varlamov and the post and emerging from the play well enough to get right into the resulting scrum.
There was defenseman Brian Dumoulin, a question mark for this game after a blocked shot in Game 1, getting sent hard into the end boards by J-G Pageau but, after briefly heading to the locker room, getting back into the game.
There was the penalty kill, perfect so far in these playoffs, fighting off the Islanders’ only power play of the game when Rust closed his hand on a puck with just 1:28 remaining and the Penguins clinging to a 2-1 lead.
“I think everybody had a lot of confidence in our penalty kill,” Matheson said. “They’ve been great all year, whether it was getting clears or blocking shots, they did a great job. That was probably the biggest moment of our season as of yet, and they came through.”
There was the energy and effort that stormed out to a 19-shot first period and produced a total of 45 in the contest, with forward Jake Guentzel leading the way with seven. They just kept pressing all game long, playing to win in the third period instead of playing to hold on to the one-goal lead as they did in Sunday’s failed effort.
“I thought we competed hard,” Sullivan said. “Particularly liked the third period. I thought we played on our toes; I thought we defended well. We’re playing against a real good team; we knew this was going to be a tough battle. The games are going to be close and we’re going to need everyone to compete. I thought the guys competed really hard tonight.”
Perhaps no one competed harder than goaltender Tristan Jarry, who stopped 37 of 38 Islanders shots for his first NHL postseason win after taking the lion’s share of criticism for the Game 1 loss.
“I just prepared the same way I always would,” Jarry said. “I wanted to be better and just challenged myself, I wanted to come out and try to control as many rebounds as I could and try to get in the way of the puck, and I think that was something I was able to do tonight.”
“He was so solid for us,” Matheson said. “All game long, he was making big save after big save. That’s the Tristan Jarry that we all know and love, and it was great to see that.”
“Jars is a gamer,” Rust said. “Comes to the rink, works hard, learns from the past and moves on.”
With the series tied 1-1, it’s too soon to tell if these Penguins will be able to show they’re built for the playoffs and sweep aside the memories of their past three early exits – a 4-2, second-round loss to the Washington Capitals in 2018, a 4-0 first-round sweep to the Islanders in 2019 and a 3-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in last year’s qualifying round.
Tuesday, though, there’s no questioning that they answered the call.
“We’re just focusing on this year,” Rust said. “This is a different group. We’ve gone through different things as a group; we’ve learned different lessons. We’ve built a good team game over the year. I think for us, just to be able to get this [series] 1-1 before heading there was huge.”