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Pens come back, then hang on vs. Islanders

The SportsXchange

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders picked up this season where they left off last spring, when the Penguins beat the Islanders in a fierce six-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

But an actual playoff rematch between the two newly minted rivals became a bit less unlikely Thursday night, when the Penguins came back from an early two-goal deficit by scoring four unanswered goals in the first and second period before hanging on for a 6-4 win over the Islanders in front of an energized, near-sellout crowd of 15,012 at Nassau Coliseum.

Dating back to Game Two of the quarterfinals in May, seven of the last nine games between the Penguins and Islanders have been decided by one goal -- and Thursday's game would have been a one-goal affair, too, if not for an empty net goal by Penguins center Brandon Sutter with 3.3 seconds left.

"I feel like we've had a lot of games that ended up in shootouts or overtimes, especially in this building," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said.

The Penguins won Games Three and Six in overtime at Nassau Coliseum last spring and Crosby's overtime goal lifted the Penguins to a 3-2 win at the Coliseum on Dec. 3.

The win Thursday was eerily similar to Game Three on May 5, when the Penguins fell behind 2-0 in the first period, scored four unanswered goals and then survived a two-goal Islanders comeback in the third to win in the overtime.

"It doesn't really seem to matter -- lineups, people, who's on the ice, goaltenders, locale -- there seems to be some erratic and crazy things that seem to happen," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Tonight's start was reminiscent of Game Three here in the playoffs. A lot of that seems to keep coming up. It always seems to be a tight one at the end."

The Penguins' win Thursday marked the seventh time in the last nine Pittsburgh-New York games that the winner has come back from a one-or two-goal deficit. The Penguins are 5-3 in those games.

"I feel like we've had a ton (of games) that have been really tight -- I think that's just kind of the nature of the two teams," said Crosby, who had a goal and two assists Thursday. "I would say it's developing into those kind of games consistently."

While the Penguins (36-13-2) continued cruising toward the top seed in the Eastern Conference -- Pittsburgh has a nine-point lead over Atlantic Division leader Boston -- the Islanders' uphill climb toward the eighth playoff spot got even more challenging with the loss.

The Islanders (21-25-7) went 2-13-2 from Nov. 5 through Dec. 9 to all but fall out of playoff contention, but have gone 12-6-0 since Dec. 20. But the loss Thursday, coupled with Columbus' 5-2 win over Philadelphia, dropped the Islanders nine points behind the Blue Jackets for the final wild-card spot.

The loss was the eighth this season in which the Islanders have blown a two-goal lead. After center Brock Nelson gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead, the Penguins needed just 3:03 to tie it on goals by left winger Chris Kunitz and Crosby.

"You can't give Kunitz and Crosby and Malkin and (left winger James) Neal and (defenseman Kris) Letang -- the list goes on -- time and space, because they're going to make plays," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "They're a high-powered team."

Penguins defensemen Olli Maatta and Letang scored in the second as Pittsburgh took a 4-2 lead. The Islanders got within a goal twice in the third period on scores by center Josh Bailey and left winger Kyle Okposo, but Penguins center Evgeni Malkin answered Bailey's goal with one of his own less than three minutes later and goaltender Jeff Zatkoff (30 saves) made five power play saves later in the third -- including two on a 5-on-3 power play with about seven minutes left -- to preserve the lead until Sutter's empty netter iced it.

"It just kind of comes down to who's going to execute their game the best," Crosby said. "We saw tonight some more goals than probably both teams would like. But at the end of the day, you've got to find a way to win those sometimes."

Goaltender Kevin Poulin recorded 23 saves for the Islanders.

NOTES: The end date for the Islanders' Nassau Coliseum tenure was confirmed Thursday when Newsday reported the team would play out the final season of their lease at the Coliseum in 2014-15 before leaving for Brooklyn and the Barclays Center for the start of the 2015-16 season. The Islanders, who announced in October 2012 that they would move to Brooklyn no later than 2015, reportedly pondered the idea of exiting the Coliseum for Brooklyn at the end of this season. ... The Islanders had healthy scratches in LW Eric Boulton and D Matt Carkner. The third scratch, D Travis Hamonic, missed his sixth straight game with concussion symptoms. ... Penguins C Andrew Ebbett, who was activated off injured reserve after missing 20 games with a broken ankle, and D Robert Bortuzzo were healthy scratches. ... Before the game, the Penguins assigned C Zach Sill to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, their affiliate in the AHL.

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