On Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins fired General Manager Ron Hextall after just 26 months on the job after the team failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 16 years.
There is no shortage of reasons why Pens ownership is moving on from Hextall, but from an Islanders perspective, it's hard to think about one play in one game that could've made the difference between the GM, along with hockey operations Brian Burke and assistant general manager Chris Pryor.
On Feb. 20, in their first game since losing Mathew Barzal to injury in Boston, the Islanders visited the Penguins, tied for them with 63 points, but Pittsburgh had four games in hand. As the rest of the regular season would show, a Pens win would have made it unlikely for the Islanders to catch Sidney Crosby, Evengi Malkin, and company.
Late in the second period, with Pittsburgh leading 2-1, Jake Guentzel made a play on net that had Sorokin moving to his left. The pass was deflected and then corralled by Kris Letang, who got off a backhand that looked destined for the empty net before Sorokin stuck out his stick and made an absurd paddle save to keep it a one-goal game.
Trailing 2-1 entering the third period, Bo Horvat and Anders Lee scored 1:41 apart to grab the lead for the Islanders, and they held on for the win, with Sorokin making 44 saves to improve to 3-0 against the Penguins on the season.
The 4-2 win proved to the Islanders team that they could win games with their star playmaker and, with just four games remaining until the trade deadline, put on a performance that helped convince GM Lou Lamoriello that adding to the roster rather than selling off two or three assets was what was best for the organization the rest of the way. "It’s one of those moments where you feel as if news breaks and potentially, it’s easy to write off the team. But I thought tonight showed a lot about us,” Zach Parise said. “We played our asses off and got a much-needed win.”
Who knows exactly how things would've played out if Sorokin didn't make that paddle save on Letang, but simple math shows that if you take two points from the Islanders and give them to Penguins, Pittsburgh is in the post-season, their GM still has a job and the Islanders are at home reassessing what they need to do moving forward instead of getting ready for Carolina.
"That's what you're going to see the rest of the way here," Islanders captain Anders Lee said after the Pittsburgh game. "Say whatever you want about us, but we're going to battle, and we're going to fight to the end on all this."
The captain was right.