Middletown, N. J. – An epic battle ensued in-game three of the Eastern conference quarterfinal today as the Islanders and Penguins went toe to toe for 70 minutes, extending play into overtime. But alas, in the end, it would be the officials who would ultimately decide New York’s fate as an extremely weak penalty call to Brian Strait leads to Chris Kunitz banging home the winner to put the Pens up 2-1 in the series.
For the better part of two games now, the Islanders have been the better team of the two, especially at 5 on 5 play, which was a weak point of the Isles play this season. They have shown they can not only play with Pittsburgh but frustrate and beat them. But it is very difficult when you are playing against seven skaters on the ice at all times, being the Pens forwards, defenseman and both officials.
Numerous times today on dump-ins, the Isles were held, impeded and outright forced off their momentum, which are calls that were being made with alarming consistency all season long. Kris Letang was a very noticeable offender with 4 minutes to play, clearly holding up John Tavares after the Islanders superstar dumped the puck into the corner and was attempting to begin a forecheck.
Did the Islanders make tons of mistakes today? Absolutely. Did Evgeni Nabokov have a strong game? Absolutely not. But the Islanders put themselves in a position to win the hockey game and unfortunately had the proverbial rug ripped right out from under them.
Shots on goal ended up 36-25 for the Islanders, but the Penguins going 2-4 on the power play proved to be too much to overcome.
Isles Star Of The Game
- Offense. For the second straight game, the new line combinations for head coach Jack Capuano are clicking on all cylinders.
- Michael Grabner – he really came to play today after being quiet in Pittsburgh. All over the ice and even becoming an imposing physical presence.
- Kyle Okposo – What more can you say about the ‘Beast in the East’. Another tireless effort and an absolutely sublime take of the Frans Nielsen pass to score a shorthanded breakaway goal in the third. He has now started two Islanders comebacks in three games by himself.
- Travis Hamonic was awesome today getting in Evgeni Malkin‘s grill and tossing the superstar around every chance he had.
- Resiliency – This team just never gives up, never stops working. Came out absolutely flying in the 3rd when they could have just packed it in. You have to now know that this team is going to be a legitimate NHL force for years to come. This is only the beginning.
- The fans – you came out, you made your voice heard and supported the club like you have not had the opportunity to in the last six years. Bravo to section 329 as always and keep your heads up, for I have a strong feeling we are going back to Pittsburgh for game five tied in the series.
- Evgeni Nabokov – that is now 2 of 3 games where he has not been sharp. And throw in the first period of game two and you have the makings of some unexpected struggles for the Isles goaltender. Overplaying a ton of shots and leaving some deadly snipers just way too much room.
- Mark Streit – The Islanders captain still looks indecisive on the power play and very slow on defense, seemingly almost always a step or two behind the play. His most obvious stick to the mid-section of Brenden Morrow started the Pens comeback in the first period and took all momentum away from the Isles.
- Brad Boyes – You really need secondary scoring in the playoffs and Brad is really struggling right now to do much of anything, let alone put the puck in the net.
- Opportunities to shoot – The Isles would have had close to 45 shots as they chosen to exercise their decisions a little better. Marc-Andre Fleury is really having a hard time right now and missed chances to test him from all angles are showing up.
- John Tavares – I’ll take the heat for this one, and know that JT is my absolute man-crush, but he has not been the difference maker that he needs to be. With Brooks Orpik out of the lineup, he has an opportunity to work a suspect Pens blue line. Yes he scored the tying goal today but that could be more on Fleury than actually a credit to Tavares.
- The power play – dormant for the better part of four weeks now, chances to put the Pens away in the first and third periods went by with nary a challenge against the league’s 25th ranked penalty killing unit.
Lastly, a huge chase and minus for the officiating. Up until the third period, I actually thought the game was not too badly called for either team. Then my greatest fear was realized. That all the effort and hard work that the Islanders put in would be ripped from them in one fell swoop. The non-call on Letang and non-trip on Crosby were the most obvious infractions missed right in front of the referees but they went above and beyond the horrible job they were doing when they gift-wrapped the game for the Pens power play in overtime. Brian Strait leans, and I mean literally leans, on Sidney Crosby and whoops, there go the feet. We have all seen this song and dance from Sid before and the refs bought it hook, line and sinker. Kunitz ended the game barely a minute later.
With the way the Isles have dominated the last two games, given their playoff inexperience, they are in a great position right now. The heads should not be drooping in the locker room, rather being held high. They have shown they can play with and beat the best. They are showing grit, hard work and the kind of play that carves out future champions in the National Hockey League. The old cliché is ‘you have to walk before you can run’……Well right now the Isles are jogging. Hang in there, we all knew there would be some turbulence ahead.
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