Last week I wrote an article outlining how the Penguins would sweep or beat the Islanders in 5 games with little problem.
I stand corrected.
The Islanders matched and perhaps outmatched the Penguins in nearly every aspect of the first four games of the series, with game one as the lone exception. Games 2-4, the Penguins looked every bit like the team that was embarrassed by cross-state rival Philadelphia just a year ago. Terrible backchecking, lazy zone exits followed by turnovers that lead to goals or extended periods of time spent in their own zone, turnovers at the Islanders blue line leading to odd man rushes, and no timely saves from The Flower.
Tuesday night, I was running out of ideas of who’s fault it was for the lack of adjustments made through four games in the opening series. Was it Bylsma and a lack of systematical changes to counteract the Islanders pressure and speed driven game? Was it a lack of passion and emotion from the players on this superstar-laden lineup? Or perhaps was it a lack of confidence in the players stemming from the concern of whether Fleury would make the next save?
I’m not sure. I’m not sure anyone outside of that locker room can put a finger on it.
But let’s not give all the credit to the Penguins sloppy play. The Islanders look every bit the team that finished the last 10 games of the regular season 6-1-3. John Tavares looked like a superstar as I mentioned in my previous blog. Michael Grabner is all over the ice. Kyle Okposo has risen to the occasion and has played like the 09-10 version of himself when he scored a career-high 52 points for the Isles. Travis Hamonic has looked like a top pairing shutdown defenseman. The team has been giving the Eastern Conference champion Penguins fits.
I went to last night’s game and I admit I was very concerned, and I believe most other Pens fans shared my apprehension. However, it didn’t take long to realize that this was a different Penguins team.
This was the Penguins team that came out in game 1 and dominated the way they did all of March during their NHL record 15 game win streak (trailing only the 1992-1993 stacked Penguins club). This was the Penguins team that nearly every analyst said would come out of the Eastern Conference. This was the Penguins team that came at you in waves, from the first line all the way down to the fourth.
The first period was a very even period that saw both teams looking tentative to make a momentum-changing mistake. Early in the second period, the Penguins were in the midst of a change that saw Tyler Kennedy step off the bench unnoticed by the Islander’s defensive pairing. As soon as Letang had the puck with space in front of Vokoun, he fired one of the best up ice saucer passes I’ve seen from him in his career. And Kennedy, making his playoff debut after a frustrating 2013 season that saw him deliver well below his average points per game number of nearly .5 a game, made no mistake about burying his opportunity top shelf on Nabby’s glove side. The roof almost came off of the building.
I must admit I am one of Kennedy’s biggest critics. I get tired of seeing the 50ft wrister. I love his tenacity and his grit but have always questioned his decision-making. I was a proponent of his benching at the start of this series.
However, after seeing the way the ‘Guins were outplayed in games 2-4, I began to think that his vigor and speed was everything the Pens needed to wear down the opponent and provide energy to the top 3 lines of the club. I was also heavily in favor of starting Joe Vitale and believe he should be in the lineup night in and night out for the Penguins. The dude can flat out play, and he can play HARD. He isn’t afraid to hit anyone, and also has the type of offensive upside to his game that goes perfectly in a 4th line role. He doesn’t look to make pretty plays, but instead looks to keep the puck deep and cycle, which I believe he’s very good at. Centered by Craig Adams, I believe this needs to be the Penguins 4th line moving forward in these playoffs.
Less than two minutes later, the Penguins had possession of the puck as a result of great hustle from Chris Kunitz, who made Keith Aucoin look like a scratched defenseman on an OHL team. Kunitz passed the puck to Doug Murray, whose changeup wrist shot (which may have been redirected) struck Nabokov in the right shoulder and trickled behind him for a Penguins goal. I thought my ears were bleeding it was so loud. 2-0 Penguins.
With six minutes to go in the second period, the Penguins again scored on a brilliant move by captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby ducked through two defenders, protected the puck, and buried a goal on Nabokov’s stick side. A highlight reel goal I’ll remember for a long time.
The third period brought more of the same, with another goal by the Penguins followed by a series of penalties by frustrated Islanders. I’ll take this time to say that Matt Martin is officially on my hockey hate list. The two-time NHL leader in hits needs to just shut up and play the game at times. The last two minutes of the game followed a traditional blowout playoff game mold in which players were escorted to their respective locker rooms after shoving matches. 4-0 Penguins, and a 3-2 series lead.
This was a different team. This was a team inspired by the pulling of #1 netminder Marc-Andre Fleury and wanted to be sure to play in front of 36-year-old veteran Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun looked fantastic in his Penguins playoff debut, turning aside all 31 shots fired at him and recording his 2nd career playoff shutout. I love that guy and love to see him succeed for us. He is willing to do whatever it takes to win for this team, whether it’s sit on the bench and encourage his teammates and mentor Fleury, or step in in a pivotal game 5 and deliver a classic performance.
The Penguins take on the Islanders in the Nassau Coliseum tomorrow night at 7pm. I’m sure the fans of New York will be lively and loud as they’ve been the two games prior in New York. If Vokoun gets another start and we see last night’s version of the Penguins, it’s goodbye New York in game 6.
Justin Culotta, Intern Blogger