Let's leave the philosophizing and postmortems for tomorrow. For now, we'll recap the Islanders' final game of the 2013 season, one in which they pressured and punched the Pittsburgh Penguins for sixty-plus minutes, only to lose a heartbreaker in overtime.
Line-up intrigue kept inquiring minds guessing whether reliable center Frans Nielsen, who left Game 5 with a lower body injury, would play or be replaced by rookie reverend Brock Nelson. In the end, the answer was "[C] - All of the Above," and each showed little to no signs of slowing or nerves during the course of the fast-paced game. Instead, Jesse Joensuu was scratched and once again, Thomas Hickey was sat in place of Matt Carkner.
Each period, as well as overtime, played out in a similar way: The Islanders dominated possession, scoring chances and shots, Evgeni Nabokov made some effective, if inelegant, saves and yet the scoreboard would be tight thanks to Tomas Vokoun. The Islanders had three powerplays to the Penguins one and had good movement and chances on all of them. But not cashing in cost them, and did little to help them pull the game away. On other words: "It's the playoffs."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma must have predicted his team's later struggles, calling a timeout less than two minutes into the game after the Islanders had slightly tilted the play their way. It didn't help and the Islanders, and their top line in particular, kept the pressure on. Josh Bailey showed some nifty moves behind the net and a few second later fed a backhand pass to a driving John Tavares in the slot. A perfect shot on Vokoun sent the Coliseum onto its first of many eruptions.
A scary moment followed in which the skate of a falling Pascal Dupuis came a little too close to Casey Cizikas' chin. Cizikas would go off for a check-up, but would return quickly.
Pittburgh's scoring chances were few and far between, and would actually decrease as the game wore on. But one early chance resulted in a tying goal, as Sidney Crosby had a step on Brian Strait and drove towards Nabokov. The initial sliding save left a small rebound that seemed to be cleaned up by Jarome Iginla. But replays showed that Strait shot the puck into his own net in an attempt to stuff it under Nabokov.
The Islanders went right back to their forecheck and a line of Matt Martin, Nelson and Keith Aucoin had a good cycle following the Penguins' goal. Defenseman Douglas Murray did his best Al Iafrate impression with multiple shots from the point in one of the few instances of sustained pressure from Pittsburgh. But with about 90 seconds to go in the period, Colin McDonald scored a tap in on a feed from Aucoin. The key to the play was Michael Grabner pressuring Pittsburgh's Kris Letang with a hit and finding the trailing Aucoin.
The second period started with a strong backhand chance by Bailey and very lively first Islanders powerplay after Brendan Morrow dangerously boarded Radek Martinek. Although only two shots were officially recorded, it felt like 50, with the Islanders spending nearly the entire two minutes on the attack. At the 13 minute mark, shots were 19-7 Islanders for the game.
The Penguins' powerplay has crushed the Islanders in the series, but their only one tonight, following a Martinek cross-checking penalty, was killed effectively. A short-handed two-on-one chance for Cizikas was blocked by a sliding Evgeni Malkin, who will surely now receive votes for the Selke Trophy. But a few seconds after returning to even strength, Joe Vitale patiently passed to Dupuis, who had good position on Travis Hamonic. The quick shot tied the game, and Hamonic was none to happy about it on the bench during a chat with assistant coach Brent Thompson.
Any momentum shifting was negated by two consecutive Islanders powerplays, one following a Matt Cooke cross-check and the other on a bench minor for too many men on the ice. For a moment, it looked as if the second penalty would be overturned in possibly the first ever successful referee lobbying job in professional sports history. Unfortunately for Bylsma, he was unable to talk his way out of it. Again the Islanders had good looks with the man advantage - Tavares wheeling on the first and Lubomir Visnovsky just missing from the slot on the second thanks to some canny stick play by Brooks Orpik - but came away empty.
Nabokov, whose performance in this series could be very generously described as "erratic" (and less-generously described as "awful"), had by far his best game of the series. He made several key saves in each period and a point blank save on Chris Kunitz, who received a pass from some strong behind the net dancing by Crosby, was easily Nabokov' s best save of the series and possibly of the last three weeks.
Tied at 2 and leading in shots 28-13 after two periods, the third could have gone either way for the Islanders. But play continued to remain in the Penguins' end, including some dogged forchecking by the second line - with a scoring chance for Nielsen - and a go-ahead goal by Grabner. McDonald's pressure on Letang turned the puck over to an open Aucoin who found Grabner on the side of the net.
But don't take my word for it. Here's guest analyst Brett Hull:
Pitt is a turnover machine ! #stoppassingtothem— Brett hull (@2ndBestHull) May 12, 2013
The Penguins mounted an attack with some good forechecking by Malkin, and a Crosby attempt was blocked by Strait. The Islanders soon wrested control back and Martinek had a golden opportunity to score the goal of his life but couldn't get enough juice on his shot from the slot. A couple of two-on-ones for the Islanders and some quality cycles seemed to be just the kind of clock-draining the doctor ordered.
But with five minutes and change left, a point shot from defenseman Paul Martin was tipped off the stick of Nielsen and sent over Nabokov's shoulder. A fluke deflection, especially from a normally defensively sound forward, can't really be blamed on a goalie. But it counts anyway, and the remaining minutes of regulation were played out disjointedly by both clubs.
Once again, overtime could go either way. The Islanders had dictated play all game but were tied in goals. Little changed in the extra period, with a rush by Letang and a chance by Kuntiz - broken up by the stick of Tavares - being the only real scoring chances the Penguins had. Grabner had two wraparound chances, and a shot by Mark Streit took a wild bounce off the boards and seemed to catch Vokoun by surprise. A great keep-in by the third line and a Martinek shot wide of the net, off a feed from Tavares, were also unproductive. The majority of the OT looked like an Islanders powerplay.
Finally, at 7:49 of OT, a pass from Tyler Kennedy found Orpik at the point. Nabokov was screened slightly on the right by Martinek and as he looked for the puck, it sailed over his right shoulder, off the corner post and into the net. It was a savable goal, but also a pin-point shot at a perfect height. The Islanders' most successful season in years ended with a ping.
After a moment of shock, the sold-out Nassau Coliseum crowd began a loud, proud "Let's Go Islanders" chant that serenaded both teams during the handshake line. The Islanders, in their final home game, had a thankful skate around the ice to salute the fans - those that had returned after some separation time and those that had never left. Although the occasion was disappointing, the sentiment was encouraging, enriching and appreciated.
- On that crowd: it was absolutely a living, breathing entity throughout the game. Penguins goals were countered with pro-Islanders chants, including a "We Want Fleury" call after Dupuis' first period score. At no time did the energy level dip, even after Orpik's winner. I'll leave it to the eloquent Keith Quinn to sum it up:
Kudos to the #Isles franchise and once dormant Isles fans. You've proved that when given something to cheer about, you show, and show well.— Keith (@KeithLHHockey) May 12, 2013
- Nelson looked fine in his debut and seemed to slot right in on a line with Martin and Cizikas. He crashed along the boards like his linemates and, on one shift in the third, found Martin with a quality long pass and had a shot himself. He even had some playerplay time during the too many men on the ice minor. Playing a rookie in an elimination is a gamble, but Nelson seemed up to the challenge.
- Nielsen seemed a little slower than normal, probably due to his injury. His line with Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo was active all game although they finished with no points.
- The best lines for the Islanders were the third line of Grabner-Aucoin-McDonald (cue the #freeGrabs40 tag), and Tavares-Boyes-Bailey. I thought Boyes in particular was creative and busy all night. I don't know if he's back next year. But if he isn't, this game will be a good memory to leave on.
- The Carkner-Hickey switch is a hot button issue. Hickey has youth, an upside and skills that Carkner doesn't, but something about the rugged veteran made him a better fit for the Islanders in this series. Be it toughness or composure or bringing donuts to practice, whatever Carkner did, it was in games the Islanders won (or almost won). Go figure.
- The Penguins's stars seemed a little off tonight, and the most dangerous offensive threats seemed to be Kennedy and Vitale. Crosby and Malkin weren't exactly quiet - in fact, Malkin's assist and Dupuis' goal gave them points in each game of the series - but they went for long stretches will little activity. Letang played his usual high risk/high reward game but seemed to be under pressure all night. When the heroes are scoring machines Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, something is very, very amiss.
- Vokoun was good and kept the score close. It's safe to say the Islanders would have probably pumped in another half dozen goals on Marc-Andre Fleury had he been in goal. But Vokoun was tested more often and more closely than he had been in Game 5 and gave up some well-played goals. I really have no idea what's going to happen to the Penguins against Ottawa in the next round. The Senators are as speedy and shifty as the Islanders, with arguably even more firepower at forward. Pittsburgh may have taken care of business against a lower seed, but their next opponent will pose some new challenges for them.
- Personally, I feel no disappointment or shame in this season. If you feel the same, don't let any troll or enemy or media wise-ass tell you different. With every eye in the world watching, the Islanders and their fans came ready to battle with guns blazing. This was a big season for the Islanders, one that might have happened last season were it not for Streit and Okposo's injury-marred 2010-2011 campaigns that I think set the team back a year. Now the worry turns to the future and the constantly evolving story of this franchise. Whatever happens, I'll know that this chapter was a satisfying and tantalizing one.
- OK, so a little philosophizing. It's late. Sue me.