The New York Islanders fell flat at home in a 5-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday afternoon, in a perfect microcosm of the different directions these two teams are heading as the playoffs loom.
True, it was the Islanders' first loss in four games, but the prior week's three-game win streak came against the Metro's bottom two teams and required extra time fortune in two of them. Against the Penguins, the execution was as poor as many fans feared.
Matt Murray made 24 saves for the shutout, which must have felt like an attendance prize as the Penguins clinched a playoff spot.
The result improved the Penguins' surge to 11-1 since losing 2-1 to the Islanders almost a month ago. It also all but assured the Islanders of no chance of gaining home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That was a longshot already, but the afternoon drubbing moved the Pens up to 98 points, five ahead of the Isles who have just five games left on a busy and challenging final-week schedule.
That includes the Lightning on Monday, followed by a road game with the Capitals on Tuesday, the Rangers on Thursday and a finale back-to-back weekend with the Sabres and Flyers, who beat the Senators on Saturday and are now just two points behind in their threat to pass the Isles in the wild card standings.
With the goaltending that has carried them through much of the season now slumping, suddenly the Isles' unconvincing even-strength play throughout the season is fully exposed.
The Islanders were decent, at best, in the first period thanks to some power plays, but they soon (re)discovered how the Penguins are a different beast under coach Mike Sullivan. Pittsburgh outshot them 14-7 in the first period and 10-7 in the second, keeping prime Isles scoring chances and rebounds at a premium. The Penguins gummed up the works through the neutral zone and left the Islanders with ugly choices on their breakouts. Actual shot attempts were much closer than that, but scoring chances favored the Pens.
Murray, who started in favor of a concussed Marc-Andre Fleury, was good in stopping those first 16 shots, but not exactly overly challenged.
Once the Penguins got the first goal off an Islanders power play miscue, they were able to turn the screws.
That goal came at 12:41 of the first, against the run of play after a miscommunication between Jean-Francois Berube and Nick Leddy. With the Islanders on the power play and both teams changing, Berube fielded a clear up the slot, where he thought Leddy would be turning. But Leddy had looked over his other shoulder to assess where everyone else would be, so rookie Oskar Sundqvist was the first to the puck inside the Isles blueline. With Berube off his line and backing in, Sundqvist beat him cleanly from distance for a shorthanded goal.
The Penguins got their insurance started in the second period after Nikolay Kulemin and Kris Letang -- who throws the best tantrums this side of Kanye West -- exchanged slashes and then engaged in a pretend fight. Somehow that equated to coincidental roughing penalties plus an extra slashing only to Kulemin. On the ensuing power play, Patric Hornqvist deflected a Justin Schultz shot past Berube to make it 2-0.
Matt Cullen's goal seven minutes later made it 3-0 and was the clearest breakdown, with all three defending Isles backing in and Kyle Okposo merely sliding on his stomach in ineffective desperation. Cullen took advantage of Berube being deep in his crease to roof the shot over Berube's shoulder.
Down 3-0, a power play late in the second period was completely ineffective, and the Isles were lightly jeered off the ice by the sellout crowd as if they'd basically conceded defeat.
Tavares (1/2): "We went out there and got embarrassed because we didn’t play hard enough....This time of year, that is unacceptable..."— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) April 2, 2016
Tavares (2/2): "... Everyone has to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves how much they want it." #Isles— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) April 2, 2016
Indeed! Defeat was fully conceded. The third period was a lifeless, energy-conservation display. Not that one should read too much into "you could see it in their eyes" voodoo, but the MSG feed of the players coming from the locker room for the third period looked like a team that knew "we aren't taking this one, so no point getting hurt or doing the ra-ra charade."
Phil Kessel made it 4-0 with a patented Kessel wrister that almost had Berube breaking his stick on the post in anger. (He held up, because why bother.) A laughably sloppy defensive sequence saw Tom Kuhnhackl (gesundheit!) make it 5-0 with five minutes to play.
If the Isles truly "like" Berube so much that they'd consider keeping him as part of a two-goalie tandem next year, they may want to have some conversations about finding loose rebounds lying around the crease. There were lots today, mostly mercifully unpunished.
Cappy: "Our guys have to be better. It’s not like we’ve got a lot of guys in the bullpen that we can put in there so we have to pick it up."— Laura Albanese (@AlbaneseLaura) April 2, 2016
When Matt Martin delivered a stupid boarding on Schultz, Ian Cole erased the would-be power play with a crosscheck on Martin that would have been allowed in "playoff hockey" but is randomly penalized when officials decide a given game is a By The Rulebook Day.
After emerging from the box for their penalties, Cole and Martin fought immediately. Martin probably "won" the fight, though it looked like all the punches landed on Cole's visor.