Just when it seemed John Tavares’ NHL debut would be perfect, Sidney Crosby wrecked the ending for the prized rookie and the New York Islanders.
The 22-year-old Crosby had a goal and assist to reach 400 career points in only 292 NHL games, and then scored the shootout winner in a 4-3 victory over the Islanders on Saturday night.
Until New York squandered a pair of one-goal leads in the third period, the night belonged to Tavares – the first pick in this year’s draft. He scored a go-ahead goal and added an assist, but couldn’t come through in the opening-night shootout.
“We were in their face for most of the game,” the 19-year-old Tavares said. “We played true Islander hockey. The result was disappointing, but we’re playing the Stanley Cup champs and there was a lot of positives to take from it.”
Tavares went second for New York in the shootout and fired wide. Jeff Tambellini rang a shot off the post on the Islanders’ first attempt before Penguins defenceman Kris Letang beat Dwayne Roloson in the tiebreaker.
Roloson, in his Islanders debut, looked sharp in making 39 saves in regulation and overtime. Marc-Andre Fleury was just as good in stopping 25 shots.
Just 17 seconds after defenceman Mark Eaton lifted Pittsburgh into a 2-2 tie 7:19 into the third, Trent Hunter restored New York’s lead with a one-timed shot from the right circle.
Ruslan Fedotenko – shaken up earlier on a hard hit from New York’s Brendan Witt – banked a shot off the skate of Islanders defenceman Bruno Gervais with 3:49 left in regulation to make it 3-3.
Tavares helped set up Mark Streit’s tying goal in the first period and then scored to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead.
When he backhanded a loose puck past Fleury during a power play at 7:09, Tavares went down to a knee and pumped his fist as his equally excited teammates raced over to celebrate with him. Hunter retrieved the puck for the new face of the franchise.
“I was so happy for him,” linemate Kyle Okposo said. “There is so much pressure on him and he takes it with such a cool head.”
Crosby scored his second goal of the season just 8:50 in on a breakaway. Crosby also scored Friday in the Penguins’ season-opening 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers after the championship banner was raised.
“This was not an easy week, and what could have been a mail-in when we say ‘Oh, it’s not our night’ we put our nose down, went to work as a group and were able to scratch out two points,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
The sold-out Nassau Coliseum crowd was looking for something to cheer about after team owner Charles Wang said before the game that he is now open to all options for the club because the Town of Hempstead has not yet approved the Lighthouse Project.
The major developmental deal that has been in the works for nearly a decade would include a new, refurbished arena to replace antiquated Nassau Coliseum. Wang set a deadline for Saturday to receive a yes or no answer from the Town of Hempstead. One never came, and now the possibility exists that the Islanders could be sold or relocated or both.
Tavares’ arrival and his quick start have already provided hope that the Islanders might be able to turn things around after posting the NHL’s worst record last season (26-47-9).
“When you come as the first draft pick, people expect a lot from you and they want you to change the game,” Fleury said.
Crosby staked the Penguins to a 1-0 lead, taking a long banked pass off the boards in front of the penalty box and racing into the New York zone. Crosby made a sharp cut to the centre of the ice, darting in front of chasing defenceman Witt, and sliding a shot past Roloson.
Tavares earned the secondary assist on Streit’s goal during a 5-on-3 advantage that was set up by a pass from Okposo. New York received a double power play after Witt laid out Fedotenko with a jarring shoulder-to-shoulder hit at the blue line. Jay McKee received an instigator penalty for jumping in to fight Witt, and defending scoring champion Evgeni Malkin was whistled for interference at the same time.
Tavares nearly added a second goal in the middle period when he came in on a breakaway, but Fleury deftly deflected the drive away with his glove.
“I thought he played well,” Crosby said. “It’s going to get easier and easier. I played against him a bit and he looked pretty responsible out there. He’s got a nose for the net. He looked strong and he’s only going to get better.”
NOTES: Tavares had three assists in four pre-season games. … Bylsma made his NHL head coaching debut at Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 16, one day after replacing the fired Michel Therrien. This was Pittsburgh’s first visit to Long Island since then. … Former Islanders captain Bill Guerin, now with the Penguins, was welcomed back and congratulated for the Penguins’ Cup title. Guerin was dealt to Pittsburgh by New York at last season’s trade deadline.