Chris Kunitz's overtime power play goal gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a 5-4 overtime win in Game 3, but the New York Islanders' continued strong even strength play signaled the Penguins will need more power plays to keep this series from going further than the top seed desires.
After an embarrassing series-opening loss, in Games 2 and 3 the Islanders have pulled off something few except the closer observers thought possible before the series began: The Islanders are outplaying the Penguins for significant portions of the game.
In fact, Sunday's game outlined the missed opportunity of Game 1, when Sidney Crosby was still out of the lineup, because Crosby's play at even strength and on the power play made all the difference Sunday. His play led to the creation of two power plays, keyed two of those goals as well as Pacal Dupuis' even strength go-ahead goal late in the first period.
Neutral commentators have taken note how well the Islanders have done at 5-on-5, perhaps flashing a blueprint of how to beat the Penguins. But any team hoping to use that blueprint will, like the Islanders, have to figure out how to stop the Penguins power play.
And the Penguins power play opportunities emerge in part from an opponent going full-tilt trying to play their stars hard at even strength; so it's not by chance that the Eastern Conference champions come by the chances to flash their top-end shooters.
Sunday was a missed opportunity for the Isles, but it also announced so much more about the team that was revealed as the 2013 season wore on: A team of resilience even when behind, a team with suddenly balanced lines that enable its speed to be a factor, and a team that, like the Penguins, will probably need better "playoff goaltending "to advance as far as they dream.
As a bonus, it also reminded the league what so many know about Nassau Coliseum: Give fans a reason, and that place will absolutely rock. It was a perfect playoff return for the Coliseum all the way up to the point where the overtime winner went into the wrong goal.
Notes and Observations
The Coliseum Rocks: What a performance from the fans, enjoying a playoff game at the Coliseum for the first time since 2007. (And I promise, that's the last time I'll cite that date this week.) Remember when some among us were upset that the NHL stuck the Islanders with a noon start for their first home game, as if it would somehow be harder to get the wheels turning?
Yeah, that was not a problem. Terrific atmosphere. The first goal helped (note: audio may jolt your speakers) [direct link]:
Great Start: The players rode that wave early, with Matt Moulson finishing after the Islanders crashed the net 1:43 into the game. Michael Grabner continued it by winning a puck, wheeling a great pass from behind the net to Casey Cizikas for the two-goal lead just four minutes later. Cizikas' celebration -- first a nod to the fans at the glass, then meeting his teammates' embrace -- was a moment you know every player lives for.
The Even Strength Control: David Ullstrom was the only Islander on the ice for more defensive zone faceoffs than offensive zone ones (and that was just 2-0). The John Tavares was on for zero defensive zone faceoffs (by coach's choice, but still...). Which team do you suppose had the puck more today? This is why shots were 24-19 through regulation.
The Special Teams: That said, the Islanders power play was again lacking, and the penalty kill was too easily exposed by the Penguins. We feared the latter going into this series, but the former is a disappointment. Reliable Islanders PK forwards Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner got caught pushing too high in the same lane in overtime, and that allowed the low triangle play that produced the winner. You wonder if Dan Bylsma's timeout before the power play emphasized that opportunity.
The Officiating: And how did the Penguins get those chances? Through normal playoff hockey. There are going to be soft and inconsistent calls -- remember Travis Hamonic got away with the exchange against Matt Cooke in Game 2 -- and teams will have to deal with them. Fans, the coaches and players were understandably upset that the call on Brian Strait in overtime was a maneuver that had been let go earlier in the game, but Crosby did well to put himself in that position and draw a professional foul.
Strait knows he has to play Crosby hard. He also knows Crosby exists in a constant threat to put him in the box. Crosby has a long history of, ahem, ah, vocally and demonstratively reminding the officials when he feels wronged, and because he is such a dangerous player, he is fouled often. It just depends on the day and the official whether the refs agree. It's a fine line, and Strait will have to do better.
Don't Let Him Get to You: Speaking of which, here's Matt Carkner feigning innocence when he left his stick as Matt Cooke's lunch as Cooke was being hit in front of the Isles bench. The officials called both, rightly so. (See GIF clip below.)
The Islanders cannot let Cooke's tired act get to them. He is an on-ice dirtbag, but that is part of the NHL's tradition of letting such agitators exist in the soft area of officiating where they desire not to call everything and are powerless to see many things.
Ullstrom did well to avoid retaliation after Cooke charged him with a high hit right after leaving the penalty box from the above incident. Instead, Ullstrom just got right back up and into the play.
Kyle Okposo, Beast Mode: Hands up if you trashed Okposo's performance this year? If you were doing it in January, you were likely right. But his play in this series has opened eyes and probably reminded people why looks can be deceiving, and giving up on still-young players with lots of attributes is best left to online forums and pub conversations. In addition to everything else, he won seven of 10 faceoffs and tagged Marc-Andre Fleury in the face with a shot.
How he accepted Nielsen's spin pass on his shorthanded breakaway is beyond me, but the skill he showed to catch it through his feet and stay on side was impressive.
From NBC's replay:
John Tavares Equalizer: Sunday's story did not ultimately have a happy ending, but for an overtime loss it had everything but: A big opening that had the building shaking, and a big third-period comeback by two of the team's most important players.
So it was only fitting that John Tavares scored the tying goal on a blistering wrist shot (through ex-Isle Mark Eaton, no less):
All that was missing was a Michael Grabner overtime winner.
Speaking of Grabner: The sound in the Coliseum crowd every time the puck went to Grabner in the neutral zone was indescribable. A collective "oooohhh" of anticipation that few other players produce. His speed does this, and it is frankly a major reason the Islanders have three effective lines right now.
Because of this threat, fans are calling for Grabner to get more ice time -- he only had 13:46 today -- but it's pretty easy to see why the Isles like him as a main penalty killer (3:08 PK TOI today) and a major reason teams must respect the Islanders' third line. That kind of three-line attack is not easily discarded.
Goaltending: Most called it before the series: Like last year's opening round between Pittsburgh and the Flyers, this would be a goalfest in large part thanks to the two weak goaltenders involved. Both are beloved by their teams and are surely part of some psychological esprit de corps that outsiders cannot understand, but they are also goalies who have had several average (at best) seasons in their recent history.
As we saw in the third period of Game 2, Evgeni Nabokov can still get it done. But it's not to be expected often enough. Most of the goals today were not his fault -- though Douglas Murray's seemed to have way too much top-corner net to shoot at -- but he didn't really make any game-savers to change the game around. Marc-Andre Fleury did, though he was beaten cleanly on a couple of goals. The Penguins hit two crossbars while shooting high on Nabokov. The Isles will need him to be at his absolute best for the rest of the team's work to pay off.
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Well, that's a wrap for now. The Islanders are having themselves a series, delivering a long-awaited surge to the fanbase that has at most two more years to enjoy the old barn in its natural element. Game 3 will have to be even better in order to make this a long series. From post-game comments, the players sound like they have the right attitude: Get back to work, keep doing what they're doing, and a thank you to the crowd.
For everyone who has waited for this from the outside, or worked on this from the inside, it has to feel good. This good (repeat warning about audio on your speakers):