The New York Islanders watched Chris Kunitz score a hat trick and Sidney Crosby collect five assists as they looked adversity in the face, paused, and decided to go through the motions in a 6-1 loss in Pittsburgh.
As comic and karmic reward for their rollover, Mark Eaton officially led all players with a plus-4 on the night.
I am serious when I say it didn't have to turn out that way. If you care to read some of the gruesome details, the Isles -- believe it or not, given the scoreline -- actually had a good (brief) start before a bad goal from Evgeni Nabokov and some goals after tough penalty calls.
Of course as we know, those things happen in hockey, and final judgment often depends on how you handle them. The Islanders did not handle them well.
Game Highlights (Ha...ha)
Lessons from This? Sort of...
Tonight provided textbook examples of how: 1) Little mistakes can build to make a game get out of control in a hurry, and 2) A superior team can look "outplayed" down the stretch as they happily sit on a blowout lead.
We'll go in reverse on those points: With the Penguins up 5-1 at the start of the third period, the Islanders got nine of the first 10 shots on goal in the period, outshooing the Pens 9-1 untill ... an awful turnover in their own zone during the breakout led to a pretty pass play and 2-on-0 that Pascal Dupuis converted to make it 6-1. That shot disparity is "score effects" on display, and it's why when we look at underlying numbers and puck control play we tend to focus on figures when the score is tied or separated by just a goal.
As for the other point ... eesh. The Islanders actually began this game well, generating chances from the top two lines on the first few shifts, even as the Pens got the home matchups they wanted with Brandon Sutter's line against John Tavares. But the Pens steadily titled the ice back and 7:10 in, Pascal Dupuis caught Evgeni Nabokov from a horribly acute angle to open a lead.
Then the penalties began and it truly got ugly, and we saw how a team can start things on the right foot and then watch it all fall apart.
The Gory Details
Brad Boyes had a trip in the neutral zone, which the Islanders might have killed, if not for Travis Hamonic dumping a suddenly wobbly-footed James Neal behind the play but right in front of the back ref. The Islanders technically killed off the 5-on-3 portion that followed, but Chris Kunitz converted before Boyes' escape from the box could help the PK.
Kunitz would add his second shortly after, again on the powerplay after a pretty shabby "puck over the glass" penalty on Andrew MacDonald, who'd hooked a chip-in out of mid-air. I'm pretty sure that's not why that rule is on the books. I'm pretty sure that didn't matter, because the Islanders brought the stink tonight.
Aside from the first few shifts, the Islanders were so bad in the first period (outshot 12-4) that you could have understood a mercy pull of Nabokov at the intermission. That didn't happen, and the Isles actually got one back to briefly make it interesting. (Aside: The chatter before the game was why the Isles would send 37-year-old Nabokov out for back-to-back starts and keep Poulin on the bench. That is not a decision I support, but for our purposes it's hard to argue it affected this outcome, which was a whole-roster rollover.)
In a horrific episode, the blueline ascended from the ice and swallowed Simon Despres, tossing him and turning him and depositing him back on the ice in pieces. That supernatural incident allowed Casey Cizikas to take the puck over the blueline and feed Boyes, who beat Tomas Vokoun far gloveside for his sixth goal of the season. (Note that this will be the only time Vokoun is mentioned in this recap. He wasn't really asked to do any work tonight.)
After Boyes made it 3-1, the Isles briefly made it look like they might make a push. Sensing that, Penguins coach and Permanently Innocent Character Dan Bylsma called a timeout to reset his troops. To whatever extent those ambiguous moments affect "momentum" and what have you, it worked. The Penguins scored two quick goals on counterattacks where the Islanders' collective team defense was napping.
On the fourth, Kunitz scored his hat trick after being allowed to waltz in to collect a rebound untouched. On the fifth, a Travis Hamonic dump to the far corner was promptly chipped off the glass and past MacDonald, where Neal happily took it in stride and beat Nabokov low. (After sequences like that, I can't hep picturing the Penguins coaching staff looking at the Isles' in-game approach and smiling with assurance that, on most nights, their approach and talent is going to carry the day.)
It was an ugly night for the entire roster -- no one bailed each other out, no one picked their teammates up in the face of adversity. In specific plays, MacDonald, Hamonic and Lubomir Visnovsky on the blueline were particularly guilty for memorable mistakes and weak coverages that led to goals, including on the PK. But as I'm sure anyone who watched in painful detail will tell you, the forwards did little to help. (In other words, the Isles best players were all culpable on this night; when your best players are having off nights against a top team, trouble will ensue.)
Kevin Poulin -- yes, he still exists -- did mop-up duty in the third period, where he stopped 10 of 11 meaningless Penguin shots. Hopefully the work at least did him well. If it did, he'd be the only Islander who could claim it on this absurd night in Pittsburgh.
Game Thread Comments of the Night
"Howie: We'll see if Jack Capuano makes a coaching change."
-multiple commenters caught this slip.
And because there was little else to enjoy (and it was sad for anyone who caught the reference):
Braaad Braaaad Braaad Brad Boyes
Fortunately, the Islanders get to stew over this for three days before their next game, Thursday in Tampa. Unfortunately, their reward is a two-game swing through sunny Florida, a trip that isn't often as fruitful on the scoreboard as it should be given the opponents involved.
And of course, it's the NHL in 2013. The Islanders are three points out of eighth and will surely be further out by Thursday, but those opponents and the parity of the Eastern bubble present more opportunities to rope you back in.