UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The New York Islanders said all the right things in the days leading up to their first-round playoff matchup against the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
Yes, they knew the odds of an upset in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series were stacked heavily against them, and yes they were aware that the Penguins roster reads more like an All-Star game lineup than an everyday club.
Still, the upstart Islanders declared they were ready and up to the daunting challenge ahead of them.
Whether they truly believed will never be known, but make no mistake, their comeback victory in Game 2 in Pittsburgh gave them a jolt of positive energy they hope carries them through their first home playoff game in six years on Sunday.
“We’ve come in believing in ourselves all season long. Nothing has changed in that standpoint,” star forward John Tavares said Saturday.
New York was run over in a 5-0, series-opening loss on Wednesday and seemed primed to be routed again on Friday night when the Penguins scored twice in the first 3:19 and then grabbed a 3-1 lead just 18 seconds after the Islanders netted their first goal of the series.
Sidney Crosby scored Pittsburgh’s second and third goals in his return to the lineup after missing more than a month because of a broken jaw.
However, no one could have predicted that the Penguins would be held off the scoreboard for the final 40 minutes of action.
“I missed two wide-open nets,” Crosby said Saturday after the Penguins practiced at Nassau Coliseum. “I don’t know if we were shut down. I didn’t feel like we were shut down, but at the end of the day we didn’t put the puck in the net. We’ve got to find a way to do that if we want to win.”
It is only two games, and the series is tied 1-1, but there is a different feel now. Before the talk was how many games it would take for the Penguins to turn aside the Islanders, now the fight is on.
That was totally clear when New York forward Kyle Okposo had the first fight of his NHL career. After teammate Matt Moulson was hit by Pittsburgh defenceman Matt Niskanen, Okposo came to his defence and bloodied Niskanen during the unexpected bout 4:58 into the second period.
Just 14 seconds later, Colin McDonald scored to bring the Islanders within 3-2. Okposo would then score the winning goal with 7:37 left in the third period of New York’s 4-3 victory.
“It was a turning point of the game for me,” Islanders captain Mark Streit said of the fight. “Moulson got hit, and he stepped in for him. It was his first fight and he did really well and he got everybody really pumped and got everybody going.
“After that we never looked back. He’s a great leader on the team. He had a great game, scored the game-winner. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
No one on the current Islanders roster played for the team during its last post-season appearance in 2007. So what lies in store will be a mystery to both clubs when the puck drops Sunday at the unusual start time of noon.
“It’s been a while and we know the fans are going to be hungry. So are we,” Tavares said. “We’ve been waiting to play here. As old as this building is, I’m sure it can get pretty loud and be rocking.”
“Ever since I’ve gotten here, no one has really given us much of an opportunity or believed we could do a whole lot. We’re just used to the situation. We believe in ourselves a lot more than other people do. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was a part of some exciting days in Nassau Coliseum when he was an Islanders assistant during the 2005-06 season.
He was already warning his players on Saturday that they are in for a totally new experience, down to the part where there likely won’t be the pockets of Penguins fans present that are usually in the arena for regular-season matchups.
“Our players have not seen this building the way it’s going to be,” Bylsma said. “I got a little taste of it being here for Islanders-Rangers games and seeing the building full. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a pretty crazy building.”
Instead of trying to weather an onslaught, the Islanders will try to keep their emotions and excitement in check.
New York has played seven straight road games, closing the regular season with a five-game trip, during which the Islanders secured their long-awaited playoff berth.
“We’ve been on the road so much lately, it’s nice to get back,” forward Josh Bailey said. “We believed going in, and (Friday) night helps for the confidence. You certainly don’t want to go down 0-2. Getting the split, coming home, being able to play in front of our home fans, we want to take advantage of that.”
The Islanders want their home to match the fired-up building they just left in Pennsylvania
“It was a great atmosphere in Pittsburgh,” Streit said. “You’ve got to love the road games in the playoffs. For us, playing at home … a lot of guys have never been in the playoffs, the fans haven’t seen us in the playoffs for a while, so everybody is really excited.”