SERIES REVIEW: Scraping Through – Pittsburgh overcomes tough Islanders squad.

The Islanders put forth a valiant effort, but it wasn't enough. Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.

The Islanders put forth a valiant effort, but it wasn’t enough. Image courtesy of sports.yahoo.com.

The Pittsburgh Penguins enjoyed a great regular season (after a slow start), and all year long were considered Stanley Cup favourites thanks to an embarrassment of riches including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal, not to mention numerous other quality NHLers.  Add to that Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and Jussi Jokinen and you have a very powerful offensive team.  Many considered their first round matchup against the New York Islanders to be a walk in the park, a team that had been so bad for so long and would be picked apart with ease.  Yet, this wasn’t the Islanders of yesteryear.  This was a highly underrated, highly motivated Long Island team that looks and plays like a deserving playoff squad.  This was going to be a hell of a battle.

GAME 1

Pittsburgh got off to exactly the start they wanted, with rookie Beau Bennett firing a wrist-shot past Evgeni Nabokov just 3:30 in the game.  10 minutes later, Pascal Dupuis made it a 2-0 game when he managed to pounce on the puck during a scramble in front of the New York net.  New York were getting some chances but were stoned time and time again by Marc-Andre Fleury – for all the crap I give Fleury about being rubbish, he was actually pretty good in this one.

Things continued to go badly for the Isles when Kris Letang snapped a bullet past Nabokov from the faceoff circle just 1:19 into the second period, and that was followed just 32 seconds later by Dupuis’ second of the game on a great backhand shot off a rebound.  Tanner Glass then ripped a shot from a bad angle past backup goalie Kevin Poulin – who had replaced Nabokov – to complete the blowout.  Pittsburgh shut the game down in the third period and preserved the shutout.

GAME 2

The Penguins once again got off to a great start, with Malkin shovelling the puck into the net just 43 seconds into the contest and Crosby – returning from injury and wearing a partial cage – knocking the puck in just over 2.5 minutes later on the powerplay.  New York then showed signs of life however, when 4 minutes later premier goal scorer Matt Moulson managed to get the puck past Fleury for New York’s first of the playoffs, not to mention superstar John Tavares’ first playoff point of his career.  However, momentum didn’t exactly swing their way just yet as Crosby regained the 2 goal lead just 18 seconds later.

And then New York took over.

They’d already been dominating on the shot clock – registering 20 shots on net in the first period alone to Pittsburgh’s 12 – and they continued that trend in the second by sending 14 shots at Fleury.  Colin McDonald, a career minor leaguer until this year, managed to slip one through Fleury’s pads from the side of the net 5 minutes into the second period, and 5 minutes later Matt Martin tied the game when he picked up Josh Bailey’s rebound on a rush and made no mistake firing it into the back of the net.

In the third period, opportunities died down as both teams grinded it out, but with less than 7 and a half minutes remaining in regulation Kyle Okposo caught a lucky bounce when he managed to knock the puck past Fleury right at the side of the net, and the Islanders suddenly had the lead, shocking the Penguins.  They managed to preserve the lead until the clock expired, and suddenly this series was interesting.

GAME 3

The Islanders began the game with a new found confidence, taking the play right to the Penguins in their first home playoff game since 2007.  Matt Moulson once again found a gap in Fleury’s coverage just 1:43 into the game, sending the Coliseum into a frenzy, followed 4 minutes later by Casey Cizikas’ snap shot from a great Michael Grabner feed from behind the net increased the lead to 2-0.  The Penguins were too good a team to be kept out of the game for long though, and at 13:18 of the first Jarome Iginla scored his first of the playoffs and first playoff goal as a member of a team other than the Calgary Flames on the powerplay to get the Pens back in the mix.  Chris Kunitz then put another in the net just 20 seconds later, and Pascal Dupuis finished off a wild first period with a tip-in with 1 minute to go, sending the Penguins into the intermission with a 3-2 lead.

Doug Murray, acquired from San Jose at the deadline as a depth defender, fired a shot home deep into the second period to give the Pens a 4-2 lead.  New York wasn’t done however.

In the third period, the home team came out all guns blazing, and caught a break when Kyle Okposo was sent in on a shorthanded breakaway by Frans Nielsen 5 minutes into the final frame, followed 5 minutes later by John Tavares tying the game with his first career playoff goal off a rocket wrist-shot.  Neither team would score again in regulation, meaning overtime was required.

Pittsburgh dominated the OT period, firing 6 shots to the Islanders’ 2, and that 6th shot was the killer as Chris Kunitz fired the puck top corner to give the Penguins a 2-1 series lead.

GAME 4

Not happy about losing such a tight game at home, the Islanders once again scored first, 14:05 into the first period off a Brian Strait wrist shot from the point that Fleury caught a piece of but didn’t get enough of.  The Pens fired back almost immediately however, as James Neal potted his first of the playoffs when he fired a perfect shot from the half-boards on a rush.

In the second, Islanders’ captain Mark Streit shot the puck in from the blueline and put the Islanders up 2-1, though once again Pittsburgh refused to lay down as Malkin tied the game with a great wrist shot past Nabokov on a 2-man rush.  The Pens took the lead a few minutes later when Brent Sutter made no mistake on a wrister from the faceoff circle, but were also not able to hold that advantage as Okposo caught a lucky bounce when he put the puck on net from behind the goal line and Fleury failed to plug the gaps, allowing the puck to bounce off him and in.

A wild second period was followed by a similar third, with Dupuis once again giving Pittsburgh the lead when he deflected Kunitz’ shot 41 seconds in, but less than 4 minutes later Mark Streit fired home his second of the game to tie it once more.  The home side then didn’t relent, with Tavares driving the net and potting home his own rebound to take the lead, and Cizikas adding the insurance goal with 1:16 to go in the game when he drove the net and slid the puck past Fleury despite being heavily leaned on by a Penguin, resulting in much hilarity for everyone not involved with the away team and proving further that Fleury is really not a very good starting goalie in the NHL.

GAME 5

Game 5 saw the series shift back to Pittsburgh, all tied at 2 games apiece.  The first period saw no scoring from either side, but the Islanders dominated on the shot clock, showcasing their determination.  They were being stymied by a new presence in net for the Penguins, Tomas Vokoun, who came in in relief of the embattled Fleury.  Vokoun kept the Penguins in this game, and they finally scored on Tyler Kennedy wrister 7:25 into the second period.  From then on the goals kept coming, with Doug Murray scoring his 2nd of the series and Crosby his 3rd before the 2nd period was over.

Things got rough in the third period after Kris Letang fired home a powerplay goal to give the Pens the 4-0 lead, with 15 penalties being called in that frame alone, including several misconducts towards the end.  Vokoun ended the game with the shutout, and seemingly settling down the Penguins after a tumultuous few games with Fleury in net.

GAME 6

Pittsburgh knew they had to put this series to bed, and quick.  It didn’t exactly start well for them in Game 6 in New York however, as John Tavares scored his 3rd of the series just over 5 minutes in.  Jarome Iginla tied things up not long after, but Colin McDonald wristed his 2nd of the playoffs with just over 30 seconds to go in the period.  Things were looking good for the Islanders.

In the second period, penalties once again were taken as the action got heated, and the Islanders were dominating play having fired 28 shots on Vokoun in the first two periods alone compared to Pittsburgh’s 13.  That didn’t mean much by the end of the second period however, as Pascal Dupuis tied the game on a tipped shot from Joe Vitale.

In the 3rd period, the teams traded goals – first Grabner snapped a shot past Vokoun, then Paul Martin did the same to Nabokov to once again tie the score with just over 5 minutes left in the game.

Unable to be settled in regulation, the game went to overtime.  Things stayed close until Brooks Orpik found the right time to score his first career playoff goal (in nearly 80 games) as he ripped a slapshot into the net to end the game and the series, allowing Penguins fans to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

KEY STATISTICS

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS NEW YORK ISLANDERS
EVEN STRENGTH GOALS 18 14
POWERPLAY GOALS 7 2
TOTAL SHOTS ON NET  167 197
EVEN STRENGTH SHOTS 134 164
POWERPLAY SHOTS 31 30
MISSED SHOTS 79 84
BLOCKED SHOTS ATTEMPTED 88 107
TOTAL SHOTS (ON NET+MISSED+BLOCKED)  334  388
GIVEAWAYS 51 37
PENALTIES TAKEN 33 34
HITS 179 198

KEYS TO THE SERIES

  • Before looking at these stats, I knew the Islanders were good, but wow – they really took it to the Penguins here.  They were a pretty good possession team all year and smoked the Pens in that area this year.
  • The Islanders were let down by their ability to convert, particularly on the powerplay.  That’s what having so many elite finishers can do for your squad – whilst Tavares and Moulson are top notch, and the rest of their roster has some really good players, they can’t really match the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Morrow, Iginla, Letang, Dupuis, Kunitz etc. in the goal-scoring stakes.
  • Goaltending won the series for the Penguins as much as it lost it.  Two outstanding efforts, one from Fleury in game 1 and one from Vokoun in game 5, really held the Islanders back.  Yet, three putrid games by Fleury nearly put paid to Pittsburgh’s season, and he finished his series after 4 games with a .891 SV% and 3.4 GAA.  I said in the series preview that Fleury was not a good bet to play well, and that is what came to pass.
  • For the Islanders, Nabokov made some great saves at times but ended the series with a truly awful stat line: a .842 SV% and a 4.44 GAA.  I’m not sure you can blame everything on him, but he has to be held largely accountable for his own performance.
  • If the Isles had better goaltending, the outcome of the entire series could have been completely different.
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