PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Sidney Crosby’s return was supposed to provide the knockout punch that would make the New York Islanders’ return to the playoffs a brief cameo.
Instead, the Islanders welcomed the return of the NHL’s best player by issuing a reminder to Crosby and the rest of Pittsburgh’s star-studded roster: it takes more than bold-faced names to survive at this time of year.
Sometimes, you’ve got to rely on the grinders too.
Kyle Okposo followed his first career playoff fight with his first career playoff goal, a bounding puck that somehow found its way into the net with 7:37 remaining to give the Islanders a 4-3 lead and tie the playoff series at one game each. Game 3 is Sunday in New York.
Okposo’s shot actually sailed wide of Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury but caromed off the end boards then back to the crease, where it rolled off Fleury’s pads and across the goal line.
“The boards were lively,” New York forward Matt Martin said. “When you’re throwing pucks in that area you get bounces and we earned the bounces we got tonight by our hard work.”
Work that started in earnest after Okposo mixed it up with Pittsburgh defenceman Matt Niskanen in the second period. Okposo took exception with Niskanen’s hit on Matt Moulson. Neither Okposo nor Niskanen is a noted fighter, but the brief dust-up ended with Niskanen bloodied and the Islanders energized.
“Kyle just stepped up for a teammate and anytime you see somebody do that this time of year, it goes a long way,” New York centre John Tavares said. “It just seemed to keep pushing our game to get better.”
New York responded by dominating play for most of the last 35 minutes to win its first playoff game since April 14, 2007.
Moulson, Martin and Colin McDonald also scored for the Islanders, who spoiled Crosby’s comeback from a broken jaw by rallying from an early two-goal deficit.
Wearing a plastic protector designed to make him more comfortable, Crosby scored twice in the game’s first eight minutes and the Penguins raced to a quick 3-1 lead. But they couldn’t hold it as the Islanders bounced back from a lifeless performance in Game 1.
Evgeni Nabokov overcame a sluggish start to stop 30 shots and the Islanders won their first playoff game in more than six years.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 38 saves for Pittsburgh, which allowed the speedy Islanders to counterpunch all night.
It wasn’t exactly the triumphant return the Penguins expected after doctors cleared Crosby to play. He missed more than a month but the Penguins hardly missed a beat, going 9-4 in his absence, including a 5-0 romp in the series-opener Wednesday. Crosby’s addition figured to make the task for the eighth-seeded Islanders more daunting.
If anything, the Islanders gave the Penguins a jarring case of deja vu. The relentless end-to-end play looked reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s ugly six-game loss to Philadelphia in the first round a year ago, when the Flyers scored whenever they wanted thanks to a Penguins defence that hardly seemed interested in doing the dirty work.
Crosby doesn’t think it’s time to panic. Still, there is cause for concern.
“It’s the playoffs; you lose games sometimes,” Crosby said. “But I think we’ve got to make sure we learn from this one pretty quickly. It’s not the way we want to play, and we definitely have a lot of room to improve.”
Giving Fleury some help would be a start. New York peppered him with 42 shots. He turned aside 38, though that number doesn’t include the 18 Islanders shots that missed the net or the 19 that Pittsburgh blocked, numbers that kept things buzzing around the Penguins’ goal all night.
“I think Marc was under siege most of the night and you could see that,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “They talked about it prior to the game getting more pucks and people to the net and that was evident from the start … We were preparing for a seven game grind of a series and we’re now into one.”
NOTES: The Penguins scratched F James Neal, who left Game 1 with an injury in the second period and did not return. Neal did not skate with the team on Friday morning and it appears unlikely he will play Saturday … Pittsburgh D Brooks Orpik missed his second straight game with a lower body injury. Orpik had played in 75 consecutive playoff games coming into the series.