The New York Islanders surged to the playoffs, psyched themselves and their fans up for a battle with a team everyone and their mother hates ... and promptly rolled over in a 5-0 Game 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unless you prefer the Cinderella storyline (e.g. New York Islanders, 1975), you could not write a more thematically appropriate script than a franchise in the midst of a long rebuild, and an even longer drought of misery, finally returning to the playoffs only to get its butt kicked in Game 1.
I'll spare you the parallels to playoff debuts by other growing teams of years' past (that pre-written post comes tomorrow), but there's not an Islanders fan out there who didn't on some level fear a disaster like this. It feels like it shouldn't happen -- hey, playoff mythology is all in your head, right? -- yet we see it time and time again, and we saw it tonight in the Islanders' turn to play boys against men.
The script began early, in a way that makes talking heads drool: Matt Cooke took a run at Thomas Hickey, Hickey gave him a stick in neutral ice, and former Penguins Brian Strait used his route to bump Cooke hard. Cooke milked it, but it was an obvious penalty and obvious poorly selected intervention by Strait.
The Penguins initiated the shooting gallery on the ensuing powerplay, Jarome Iginla tagging Evgeni Nabokov hard in the head. Ten seconds before the powerplay would have expired, rookie Beau Bennet placed a bad-angle shot perfectly over Nabokov's shoulder to open scoring.
The Islanders settled down -- no problem, they've dealt well with early goals lately -- until Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas both found themselves deep in the offensive zone hitting the same Penguin. Though the initial counterattack was just a 3-on-3, the Islanders scrambled enough for Travis Hamonic to lose his man and plant himself behind the Isles net, Martin to lose his clearing attempt, and Nabokov to come out too far to challenge, so he was off his feet for the rebound that Official Islander Killer Pascal Dupuis batted in.
It was 2-0 for the Pens, and Mark Streit closed the period by taking a lazy (but probably poorly called) New NHL stick penalty to let the Islanders start the second period on the powerplay. They scored on that one too, Kris Letang sniping over Nabokov's shoulder 1:19 into the second.
The rest is routine and obvious. Bad goaltending, bad discipline, and excellent Penguins sniping like we feared before the series. Tons of physical play from hit men Brenden Morrow, Iginla, Letang and more. Check the notes or highlights for other fodder.
Game Highlights (LOL)
- In his playoff debut, John Tavares was targeted physically all night long, he didn't have a good game, and he didn't register a single shot on goal. The Penguins are usually good and keeping Tavares in check, but tonight was an absolute blanket.
- The Frans Nielsen line with Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey was the most dangerous while the game's outcome was still in doubt. If you're looking for any positive signs, at least they continued as they were during the Islanders' April surge.
- The Islanders tried to roll lines and avoid matchups, but it didn't work. But the end they just rolled: All but two Islanders forwards had between 16-19 shifts (Keith Aucoin had 15, Nielsen had 21 with PK work), and most had between 11-13 minutes of even strength work.
- The powerplay, where members of the top two lines added about four more minutes, had its moments but came up empty with six shots on four opportunities.
- In garbage time, Marty Reasoner leaned like he was trying to catch Jussi Jokinen with his knee, but thankfully only tripped Jokinen up skate-to-skate. Major and ejection for Reasoner, but sounds like Jokinen avoided serious injury.
- That was with just 2:10 left, so the refs threw everyone out from the scrum that followed. Ten-minute misconducts for Matt Moulson, Casey Cizikas, Matt Moulson, Dupuis, Iginla and Douglas Murray.
- That incident aside, there was little after-whistle seriousness. Lots of chippy crap behind the play though. If the Islanders can split in Pittsburgh then this could easily escalate into a bloody series.
- James Neal was lost in the second period after taking a legal hit along the boards by Hamonic. Looked like his knee.
- Nabokov was pulled when Dupuis eluded Lubomir Visnovsky to make it 4-0 just 32 seconds after Letang's goal. Kevin Poulin wasn't tested much but gave up the fifth goal on a bad-angle shot from Tanner Glass.
- After a performance like that, coach Jack Capuano is likely to make lineup changes for Game 2. This is our concern, Dude. Will the kneeing be Reasoner's last act in an Isles uniform, or will someone else hit the scapewagon? And on defense?
The bad news? The Islanders were humiliated and their relevance questioned once again in their first playoff game in six years. That shouldn't matter, and it doesn't matter, unless they let it. Playoffs have a way of playing on psychology and emotions to alter performance. If they feel sorry for themselves, then it's already over.
The good news? The other side of playoffs is that every game is its own. We ascribe narratives, and emotions get in the way to make players feel like it's all connected; but if the Islanders can reset and return to the form that got them here, then it doesn't matter how they lost Game 1.
Nabby wasn't good, but Nabby was right:
Nabokov: "It's got to hurt to play. It was too easy. We have to make it hard on them on every inch of the ice. It's the only way we can win.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) May 2, 2013
Game 2 is Friday. Will they make it hurt so good?