Islanders pull even with Penguins

Jerry Beach, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders aren't playoff neophytes anymore -- not after four games, two comeback victories and one post-buzzer free-for-all on Tuesday night that certainly made it feel as if the Islanders are the team with the momentum in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
John Tavares scored his second goal of the game midway through the third period to give the Islanders the lead for good in a wild 6-4 win over the Penguins in front of a delirious sellout crowd of 16,170 at Nassau Coliseum.
The win by the eighth-seeded Islanders tied the best-of-seven series at two games apiece heading into Game 5 on Thursday night at top-seeded Pittsburgh.
As spectacular as Tavares' winner was -- it was a second-effort goal in which he picked up his own rebound and managed to contort his body so that he tipped the puck past Evgeni Malkin, who had come over to make the stop, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury -- the buzz afterward was about the fracas that broke out immediately after the buzzer sounded.
Within seconds, 10 of the 11 players on the ice -- everyone except Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov -- had raced to join the scrum to the left of the Penguins' net. The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and the Islanders' Travis Hamonic were eventually issued fighting majors.
"Not really sure (what happened)," said Islanders enforcer Matt Martin, who was in the middle of the fight and was sporting a small cut on the bridge of his nose. "Just emotions running high. Frustrations. It's playoff hockey and nothing bad came out of it. Just the gritty game. That's what we're here for."
Once the pushing and shoving was finally over about two minutes later, the Islanders gathered around Nabokov and began celebrating as the crowd roared.
The Penguins that were left on the ice, meanwhile, stood stunned, surrounded by discarded gloves and sticks.
So can this series, which now amounts to a best-of-three, get any more intense than it did Tuesday?
"I think it's gonna keep getting more and more intense," Martin said. "Obviously, we're getting sick of each other. We played each other four times now and when the same people are running into you, you start to get fed up with it a little bit.
"It's playoff hockey. It's supposed to be rough, it's supposed to be physical. And whoever controls their emotions the best is going to come out on top."
The Islanders' roster has nobody who played for the franchise's last playoff team in 2007 -- and only six players who have ever performed in the postseason -- but New York displayed impressive resiliency. The Islanders led 1-0 in the first and 2-1 in the second but allowed Pittsburgh to score the tying goal within a minute both times.
The Penguins took their second lead at 4-3 on Pascal Dupuis' goal less than a minute into the third period before the Islanders bounced back and scored twice in six-minute span.
"Happy I was able to tip that second (shot)," Tavares said of his winner. "I knew I had a good opportunity the first time and just didn't want to miss twice. It was great to get us ahead there and a great effort by everyone to seal the deal."
Casey Cizikas scored a magnificent one-handed goal with 1:16 left to provide insurance for the Islanders and officially snap New York's seven-game postseason home losing streak -- tied for the longest skid in NHL history.
"You can see our guys growing," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We talk about a young team, I think there's (14) players with no playoff experience, but they're in a series now, so there's a lot of belief in that room that if we continue to play within our framework and our structure that we can have success."
The Islanders' three-goal third period also ensured there would be at least one more game this season at the Coliseum. Game 6 will take place Saturday night -- good news for a playoff-starved crowd that was chanting "Let's Go Islanders!" more than half an hour after the completion of Tuesday's game.
While the Islanders are bursting with confidence, the Penguins -- who have nine players remaining from their 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team -- headed back to Pittsburgh looking for answers as they try to avoid losing in the first round for the third straight season.
During his postgame press conference, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma refused to discuss who he'd start in goal on Thursday night. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had the shutout in Game 1, has surrendered 14 goals in the last three games.
"This Game 4 is a big game -- (ahead) 3-1 is a different element than (tied) 2-2," Bylsma said. "Certainly, there was a lot of emotion in that game, but it's 2-2 now and how we regroup and refocus and come back out for Game 5 is really the most important (thing)."
Mark Streit also scored two goals for the Islanders, and Brian Strait and Kyle Okposo collected a goal apiece. Nabokov had 27 saves.
James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis all scored for the Penguins, and Fleury had 18 saves.
Both goalies made point-blank saves to preserve a 4-4 tie before Tavares' winner. The crowd chanted "M-V-P" after the second goal by Tavares, who also broke the first of the game's four ties with his second-period goal.
NOTES: Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald left in the second period with what the Islanders called an upper-body injury, but Newsday reported that he suffered a broken hand and is likely to miss the rest of the postseason. ... With Neal, who missed Games 2 and 3 with a lower-body injury he suffered when he was hit by Travis Hamonic in Game 1, active, neither team had injured players among their scratches. ... The NHL announced Tuesday that the Penguins' Kris Letang is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy, presented annually to the league's best defenseman. Letang, who led all defensemen with 33 assists, is vying for the award with Montreal's P.K. Subban and Minnesota's Ryan Suter. ... The Penguins are 8-6 all time when leading 2-1 in a best-of-seven series. The Islanders are 4-10 all time when trailing 2-1 in a best-of-seven series. They last came back from a 2-1 deficit in 1993, when they beat the Penguins in the Patrick Division finals. ... Before their decade-plus postseason losing streak at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders were 77-32 all time at home in the playoffs. ... Nabokov played in his 84th postseason game, tops among goalies in this year's playoffs.

What to Read Next