UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- New York Islanders' defenseman Travis Hamonic arrived at the Nassau Coliseum at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday before Game 3 and he encountered a parking lot that was already buzzing with excitement. Fans were tailgating, honking their horns to the tune of "Let's Go Islanders!" and reigning choruses of boos every time a Pittsburgh Penguins fan was in the vicinity.
The atmosphere from the parking lot transferred into the rink later that day as the Islanders fed off the electric energy inside the Coliseum and built up a 2-0 lead within the opening six minutes of the game.
“When I was on the blueline for the national anthem, it was pretty deafening," said Hamonic after the Islanders morning skate on Tuesday. "My ears were hurting a little bit at the end. I was thinking ‘Oh boy, this might be a long night.’”
As the Islanders marched their way into the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed, the buzz in the Coliseum began to grow, along with the number of fans in the seats.
“Down the stretch, especially, we really got used to playing in front of a crowd that was like that," said Hamonic. "Last game was a couple levels above what we’ve been used to, but we knew we had to get the crowd involved. We know that that is something that is in our back pocket and something that can really help us.”
The towel-waving and the "Let's Go Islanders!" chants were halted, however, when the Penguins used a 5-on-3 advantage to score twice in 19 seconds to tie the game, then later grab a 3-2 lead before the first period ended. The energy from the crowd eventually came back when the Islanders tied the game in the third period, but the Penguins know that they will have to withstand the emotion that will once again fuel their opponents early in Game 4 Tuesday night.
“We just have to be smart, manage the puck a lot better, get it in deep, spend some time in their zone and try not to give up two quick ones to get the crowd into it early," said Paul Martin. "Hopefully take the play to them early.”
Special teams have played a big role through the first three games, with the Penguins capitalizing on 6 of their 13 power play opportunities. Islanders head coach Jack Capuano has stressed the importance of improving the penalty kill, especially with counterpart Dan Bylsma's ability to throw Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Jarome Iginla and Kris Letang over the boards on the power play.
“We’ve got to play almost perfect hockey to win against this team," said Capuano. "We have one breakdown, it’s in the back of our net. They can have four breakdowns, we might not get a goal.”
So far, despite the Penguins talent and outside of Game 1, the Islanders have played the series tight at even strength, trailing Pittsburgh 7-6 in goals during 5-on-5 play. Despite the lack of playoff experience on his roster, Capuano has watched his young players rise to the occasion when needed, especially down the stretch when the Islanders were battling to get into the playoffs, then in Games 2 and 3 to overcome deficits and lost leads.
After overcoming their flat start in Game 1, the Islanders haven't let adversity take them out of this series. Nor will they allow their underdog status to affect their approach.
“We’ve matured and we believe,” said Capuano.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy