Islanders Even Series vs. Penguins with Game 4 Win
The process almost got under way prematurely Tuesday night, when John Tavares nearly blew the roof off this 41-year-old arena.
Tavares, the centerpiece of the New York Islanders' rebuilding process, broke a 4-4 tie midway through the third period to lift his club to a heart-stopping 6-4 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
Prognosticators from across North America believed the Penguins, the top seed in the East, would finish off the No. 8 Islanders in no more than five games. Instead, it's 2-2 now, a best-of-3 series that shifts back to the Steel City on Thursday, with Game 6 here Saturday.
Tavares' goal rocked the Coliseum as it hasn't rocked in years -- this was New York's first home playoff win since the Islanders beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 6 of their opening-round series in 2002. They had dropped a record-tying seven in a row at home since then.
"It's an old building, but this place gets rocking and these people are passionate," Tavares said. "We've got some great sports fans in New York, especially on Long Island, and they care about their Islanders. We can't thank them enough. First, we've got a big game Thursday. But we're happy that to know that they're going to be back here on Saturday."
New York got on the board first when rookie defenseman Brian Strait scored his first NHL goal with 5:55 left in the opening period. With the teams at even strength, Strait, who was waived by the Penguins in January, took a pass from Lubomir Visnovsky and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a wrist shot from just inside the left point as the Islanders took a 1-0 lead.
But that lead lasted all of 45 seconds. Pittsburgh tied it with 5:10 to go when James Neal, who returned to the lineup after missing Games 2 and 3 with a lower-body injury, one-timed Evgeni Malkin's feed from the right circle past Evgeni Nabokov to make it 1-1. It was Neal's first goal of the postseason.
"We knew we were in a series from Game 1," Neal said. "You go game by game. After that you just let it go and focus on the next one. We've got a lot of veteran guys in this room that have been through this. We just need to regroup here and we'll come out fired up and ready to go."
The Penguins got their first power play of the night early in the second period, when Strait was sent off for high sticking. Pittsburgh, which had converted on six of its first 13 chances in the series, kept the puck in the zone for nearly the full two minutes but couldn't find the back of the net. And when Nabokov made a glove save to finally get the Islanders a line change, the capacity crowd of 16,170 roared.
Moments later, Matt Cooke put the Islanders on the power play when he interfered with Nabokov. Streit put New York back in front at 6:19 when his slap shot from the point knuckled past Fleury to make it 2-1. The goal was originally given to Tavares, but it was changed after he said in a between-periods interview that he didn't make contact with the puck.
"It's what we expected from them," Fleury said of the Islanders. "It's frustrating, disappointing. But it's the playoffs and we've got to be ready for the next one."
Pittsburgh again responded almost immediately. With the teams back at even strength, Malkin caught Frans Nielsen trying to go off for a line change, which created a 2-on-1 for the Penguins. Malkin cruised into the offensive zone and ripped a wrister from the right circle past Nabokov for his second goal of the playoffs. The goal came 58 seconds after Streit had given the Islanders the lead.
Brandon Sutter gave the Penguins their first lead with 8:57 left in the second. Cooke laid a thunderous check on Matt Carkner that sent the latter flying into the end boards and freed the puck, Sutter took a cross-ice feed from Brenden Morrow and snapped a wrist shot over Nabokov's left shoulder to make it 3-2.
But despite all of their inexperience in the playoffs, the Islanders didn't crumble.
"You can see our guys growing," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I think there's 17 players with no playoff experience. But they're in a series now. There's a lot of belief in that room. If we continue to play within our framework and our structure, we can have success."
Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald headed off to the dressing room with about seven minutes remaining in the second period with an upper-body injury after being hit with a slap shot by Penguins defenseman Douglas Murray. MacDonald was given a holding penalty during the sequence, which was served by Keith Aucoin.
MacDonald did not return to the game, which left New York with five defensemen. Capuano confirmed the injury, but did not provide a timetable for his return. Newsday's Arthur Staple reported via Twitter that MacDonald broke his hand on the play and would likely miss the remainder of the postseason.
"He's an integral part of our team," Capuano said. "It just gives somebody else an opportunity to step in for the next game."
Kyle Okposo, arguably the Islanders' best player in this series, evened things with 1:24 left in the second on another fortunate bounce as his backhand attempt from behind the net went off Fleury's blocker and over the goal line to make it 3-3. It was Okposo's third goal of the playoffs.
"I'm not happy, that's for sure," said Fleury, whose save percentage dropped to .891 after he stopped just 18 of 24 shots in Game 4. "I'm trying hard in practice. It went in and it's frustrating, but you forget about it."
Pittsburgh regained the lead 41 seconds into the third. Pascal Dupuis charged the net and redirected Brooks Orpik's wrist shot past Nabokov and the Penguins held a 4-3 edge. Dupuis has four goals in as many games.
But the Islanders got even again at 4:30 when Streit took a pass from Casey Cizikas and fired a slap shot from the point that went off the toe of Murray's skate and past Fleury to make it 4-4. Streit became the first Islanders defenseman since Denis Potvin in 1983 to score twice in a playoff game.
"There have been swings of emotion in this game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's something we're having trouble with right now."
Tavares, the No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL Draft, then scored the biggest goal of his career with 9:49 to go in regulation. After Boyes made a nice play to deny Malkin on a clearing attempt, Tavares seized control of the puck, made nifty moves around both Orpik and Malkin and fired a shot that Fleury stopped. But he grabbed his own rebound and rifled it home to send the Coliseum crowd into a frenzy.
"It's right up there, that's for sure," Tavares said when asked where this goal ranks in his career. "I've had a great four years and I'm just trying to stay focused on the moment."
"Your best players have to be your best players," Capuano said, "and that's what Johnny was tonight."
Cizikas sealed it when he muscled his way around Matt Niskanen before poking the puck past Fleury with 1:16 remaining for his second goal of the playoffs.
The Penguins, who won 5-0 in the series opener and appeared to be much the better team, denied that they had taken the Islanders lightly.
"We didn't come in and expect it to be a walk in the park. It's hockey," said forward Jarome Iginla, who was brought in at the NHL Trade Deadline to help Pittsburgh win a Stanley Cup. "The most important thing is we got Game 3 [a 5-4 overtime victory]. We had a chance to make it 3-1, but we didn't. Now we get ready for a best-of-3 at home. It's fun to be a part of. It's intense. We know we can get better. We just need to find a way to win Game 5."
The Penguins got a scare with 7:14 left in the first when Strait's slap shot from just inside the left point drilled Sidney Crosby up high, but below his face shield. Crosby hunched over in pain for a few moments and skated over to the bench to be examined by the trainer. The Penguins captain, who broke his jaw March 30, remained in the game. Crosby was held to an assist and three shots on goal in 20:58 of ice time -- but went 4-14 in the faceoff circle, where he usually excels.