UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The New York Islanders’ rallying cry in their return to the post-season for the first time in six years is “Believe.”
Even the most ardent of supporters might find that optimism difficult following a deflating home loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Buoyed by a split of the first two games of the first-round series in Pittsburgh, the Islanders came home to Nassau Coliseum with the feeling they could upset the Penguins—the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. New York jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first period on Sunday only to be behind by the time the intermission arrived.
The Islanders then climbed out of a two-goal hole in the third period, but couldn’t seal the deal before falling 5-4 in overtime on Chris Kunitz’s second power-play goal of the game.
Pittsburgh has a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, yet this advantage seems to be even greater.
“The sun is going to come up tomorrow,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said shortly after the sudden loss. “It takes four to win the series.”
While that is true, the Islanders were counting on winning these two games at Nassau Coliseum to build off their Game 2 victory and keep home-ice advantage in their favour. Now the best New York can hope for is to go back to Pittsburgh tied at 2 after Game 4 on Tuesday.
If the Islanders lose again, they will face elimination without any guarantee of returning home for another game.
“We played a good game,” said star forward John Tavares, whose first NHL playoff goal lifted the Islanders into a 4-4 tie in the third. “We need to regroup and know that we’re playing some good hockey. We’re creating opportunities and believe in ourselves.”
There is that hopeful word again.
Very few expected the Islanders to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win Game 2 on the road, but they did. Perhaps they have another surprising comeback in them.
It isn’t often that four goals isn’t enough to win a playoff game, so if they can keep the offence rolling and figure out a way to slow the Penguins’ power play, they could turn the series back around.
Kunitz scored Pittsburgh’s third man-advantage goal of the game 8:44 into overtime, off the third assist of the day by Sidney Crosby, and the Penguins rode a slew of ups and downs en route to the win.
Crosby, playing his second game after missing a month because of a broken jaw, drew the decisive penalty against Brian Strait, who held the Penguins captain as he drove the net 33 seconds before the winning goal.
“He kind of wrapped me up,” Crosby said. “I pulled up looking for someone. I didn’t see anyone, so I thought I would take it to the net.
“We were hoping we could get it done quickly.”
The Penguins went 3 for 5 on the power play and yielded Kyle Okposo’s short-handed goal, but held New York scoreless on its three advantages.
“We had our chances. They scored on the power plays and we didn’t,” said Capuano, who declined to comment on the officiating.
When New York scored twice in the first 5:41 to go up 2-0 in Game 3, old Nassau Coliseum rocked as it did in the Stanley Cup-winning days of the early 1980s. However, this was the Islanders’ first home playoff game since 2007, and the fans were soaking it all in.
Not so fast.
The Penguins stormed back with a pair of power-play goals 19 seconds apart—first by Jarome Iginla on a 5-on-3 advantage, and then by Kunitz on the second half. When Pascal Dupuis gave Pittsburgh its first lead with 1 minute left in the opening period—capping the three-goal spurt in 5:42—the early euphoria was gone in a flash.
“You have to give them credit. They got up two and they showed no quit,” said Iginla, a key late-season trade pickup by the Penguins. “It meant a lot on the road to get those two back.
“There is a lot of emotion, unpredictability in the playoffs. You have to learn to control that.”
Douglas Murray pushed Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-2 in the second, and it appeared the Penguins would cruise. But it was a bumpy road back against the upstart Islanders.
Okposo, who had a game-turning fight and game-winning goal in Game 2, started this comeback with a short-handed goal that made it 4-3 at 5:31 of the third. Tavares tied it with 9:12 remaining in regulation.
“I’m not worried about our hockey team,” Capuano said. “We’ve bounced back all year. I know the resiliency of these guys and the way they’ve battled.”
After Strait took down Crosby in overtime, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma used his timeout to rest his power-play unit, and the move paid off. Crosby fed Kunitz in the slot for a hard shot that beat goalie Evgeni Nabokov to win it.
Evgeni Malkin added two assists, and Marc-Andre Fleury made 32 saves for Pittsburgh.
Matt Moulson and Casey Cizikas scored 3:58 apart in the first period for the Islanders.
Tavares got the party restarted with his late tying goal. He was serenaded with chants of “M-V-P” when he scored and after the goal was announced to the crowd.
The Penguins started their comeback and cut the deficit in half when Iginla deflected in Kris Letang’s hard one-timer, off a pass from Crosby, past Nabokov on Pittsburgh’s only shot of the two-man advantage. The Penguins needed only one more drive to get even.
Malkin sent a pass from blue line to blue line to Kunitz, who streaked in alone on Nabokov and snapped a shot inside the right post at 13:37.
“With the 5-on-3 they got back in the game,” Nabokov said. “It seems like every time we go down two men, we don’t win hockey games. We have to find a way to stay out of the box as much as possible.
“I thought other than that we played really well.”
Crosby showed off his exceptional passing skills again after he surged into the right circle. Crouched down, putting his weight toward his backhand side, Crosby deftly eluded a defenceman and slid the puck in front to the hard-charging Dupuis, who crashed into Tavares—covering late—and shoved the puck in to give the Penguins a 3-2 edge.
“It’s great to see him back, making all those plays,” Kunitz said of Crosby.