The Penguins were without Kris Letang and Paul Martin, they lost Sidney Crosby (puck to face) after one shift and Chris Kunitz (major/misconduct) after two periods, but the Islanders could not take advantage to stop Pittsburgh's win streak.
The opportunity was there, the Islanders applied pressure in the first (shots: 12-5) as the Pens adjusted without their captain, but when the game entered its final stages it was the Penguins who supplied the push to tilt the ice and grab a hard-fought 2-0 win. Tomas Vokoun stopped 35 in the Pens' third straight shutout.
Competitively, it was a close game throughout, but it's hard not to see the missed opportunities through the lens of a young team on the playoff bubble that is still learning how to seize chances like this. Yes, the Penguins are on fire and at the top of the conference -- and yes, if the Isles succeed in their unlikely playoff push they'd likely meet this team in round 1 --but if ever there was a time when the cards were stacked in their favor for a win in Pittsburgh, this was it.
The powerplay was too predictable, the first line was too well checked at even strength, and the Isles leave Pittsburgh with nothing. They play Monday and Tuesday night against fellow bubble teams (in New Jersey, home to the Jets) before Wednesday's trade deadline arrives.
The game was still a toss-up through 45 minutes, even after the Islanders failed to do anything dangerous with their 5-on-3 to open the third period. Michael Grabner intercepted a pass at the Isles blueline and took off for one of his breakaways ... and it was one of the poorer attempts we've seen from him, even considering he's generated and missed his share. Grabner slowed up in the high slot and shot stick side on Vokoun, who was playing aggressively forward and hadn't even begun to skate backward toward his crease.
Thirty-six seconds and one lost defensive zone draw later, the Penguins broke the scoreless tie. A bouncing puck landed on Matt Cooke's stick, where he was able to spin and place it point-blank past Evgeni Nabokov. It's painful to say it given his long history of treating the careers of his NHLPA "brothers" like trash, but it was a fantastic game for Cooke. He almost singlehandedly extinguished the Islanders' major powerplay at the end of the second and helped neuter the 5-on-3 at the beginning of the third.
Now down 1-0 and having missed so many opportunities, the Islanders shortened the blueline and started pinching more and suffered the risk: Thomas Hickey got caught flat-footed at the offensive blueline as the Penguins reversed an Isles forecheck, and James Neal beat Nabokov clean on the ensuing 2-on-1.
- The cause for Kunitz's ejection was a hit on Josh Bailey, which took Bailey out for the game. Given the result, I see why they called it a major -- the hit ended up sending Bailey face-first into the boards -- but I didn't think Kunitz had dirty or even careless intent. Kunitz approached Bailey from the side as they both chased for position in the corner. That's a not-uncommon play that can always end a number of different ways.
- Thankfully Bailey skated off under his own power. His absence was felt, though: While it created the opportunity to reunite Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo with old running mate Michael Grabner, their reconstituted combo lacked the same clear roles or approach that Nielsen and Okposo had finally settled into recently with Bailey.
- After the game, reports had Crosby losing teeth on the incident and undergoing oral surgery. Ouch.
- The game featured new Penguins acquisitions Douglas Murray (21:31), Jarome Iginla (17:30) and Brenden Morrow (14:13). None were significant or starring factors other than providing solid play for what ended up being a very short Penguins roster. Which, honestly, is why a playoff team loads up on depth in the first place.
- I could be projecting, but recently Howie Rose's play-by-play sounds like it's taken on a familiar but long-absent intensity as the Islanders' games have become more meaningful, standings-wise. As the scoreless game carried on, he narrated puck battles with a subtext of, "Yes! These games mean something again."
- Although this was by no means an awful effort from the Isles, there were plenty of examples of little mistakes that can grow into big ones -- things that you know the coaches will pull up on video between now and Monday. Poor clears, iffy passes, bad shot or pass selection in the offensive zone. Funny how better teams bring that out in a club.
- The Islanders generated five shots on goal through nearly eight minutes of powerplay, and that's not nearly enough. But really, the problem was their shot selection was bland and too often resorted to one-timers that were chosen not because of the threat they posed but because the frequent passers seemed to run out of ideas. Particularly on the 5-on-3, at least an attempt or two at a seam pass through the Penguins' tight triangle would have been welcome.
- The result means the Penguins finish March undefeated. The Isles finish 7-5-1 on the month.
Shortly after this one ended, St. Cloud closed out a 5-1 clobbering of Notre Dame in the NCAA regionals. Anders Lee and Robbie Russo's season is now over.