By Allan Muir
The New York Islanders outhit the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of their first-round series Wednesday night. They controlled the face-off dots. They even fired 26 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, the same number that the Pens managed to land.
And yet the Isles were never in a contest that they lost 5-0. Not for a minute.
Shows how far you can trust the surface numbers, eh?
This game was as epic a mismatch as you’d imagine when one side fields 11 players who won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and the other counters with 11 players who are experiencing their first taste of postseason action. The top-ranked Pens were expected to romp over the young Isles and they did, toying with their food almost from the start.
Pittsburgh scored twice in the first, then added two more goals 32 seconds apart early in the middle frame to chase New York starter Evgeni Nabokov before the contest was 22 minutes old.
If this had been a Pee Wee game, the officials would have gone to running time at that point in the spirit of good sportsmanship. But the Pens took care of that themselves, shifting into low gear after Islanders backup Kevin Poulin gave up the fifth goal, a bad-angle softie from Tanner Glass, midway through the second.
By that point, Pittsburgh had already established its superiority. The Pens were dynamite on special teams, getting power play tallies from Beau Bennett and Kris Letang, dominating the boards, and controlling the puck almost at will.
Fleury was rarely tested while earning his sixth career postseason shutout, which tied a franchise record previously set by Tom Barrasso.
“I thought we didn’t have the work ethic and our execution was poor,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.
That sounds about right. The Isles were bullied from the get-go. There may have been a talent gap, but that wasn’t the problem here. This was about readiness, about the ability to raise their game to the level that the playoffs demand. They were taught a lesson tonight. We’ll see if they learned anything when Game 2 begins on Friday.
Here are some key takeaways from the contest:
• John Tavares may be a legitimate MVP candidate based on his outstanding regular season, but the Islanders’ superstar was completely overwhelmed in his first playoff game. There’ll be a lot made of the fact that he failed to land a shot on net for the first time this season, but that was a symptom of the bigger problem — his inability to shake the persistent attention of Brandon Sutter, Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke. Morrow hammered away at him repeatedly — flattening him on at least two occasions — and Sutter and Cooke took away his time and space. The Isles don’t have the depth to generate offense if Tavares is not rolling. It’s pretty clear that he has to find a way to amp up his playing level for New York to have a chance in this series.
• Tavares may have headlined this Not Ready For Prime Time squad, but he wasn’t alone in coming up small. Defenders Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic were on the ice for the first three goals and were routinely a step behind on their coverage and a second slow on their reads. Hamonic, in particular, struggled with his man-to-man defense down low. You could see the eyes of Pittsburgh’s forwards light up whenever they hopped over the boards. That may be a mismatch they exploit moving forward.
• Nabokov took the full force of a Jarome Iginla point blast in the head late in Pittsburgh’s first power play. Seconds later, he was caught too deep in his net as Bennett picked the short side corner for the opening tally. He never really seemed to find the zone after that, struggling with both his angles and his rebounds as he allowed four goals on 15 shots before getting the hook. Was Nabokov stunned by the shot? Maybe. He remained on the bench after Poulin came in to mop up, so it’s a good bet he’ll be available for duty in Game 2.
• I can’t say enough about the play of Morrow tonight. Having watched his game erode as a result of injuries and age over the past couple years in Dallas, I questioned if he had anything left to offer the Pens. He had plenty, leading the team with 14 points in April, and while he was held off the score sheet tonight, he might have been the best player on the ice. Just a smart, gritty performance from a veteran who is clearly relishing the chance to compete for the Cup.
• Veteran defender Mark Eaton started the season as a forgotten man in the minors. He played tonight like someone who never wanted to go back, thank you very much. Eaton had a game-high eight blocks, including six in the first period as Pittsburgh limited the Isles to just eight shots on net. The Pens won’t ask too much of him — they want a simple, straightforward game — and that’s exactly what he brought tonight.
• Already without Sidney Crosby and Brooks Orpik, the Pens may have lost James Neal to a lower body injury. The big winger, who returned to the lineup just ahead of the playoffs after sitting with a concussion, was hammered awkwardly (but cleanly) into the boards by Hamonic, and it was immediately clear that something was wrong. Neal sat out the rest of the second period and all of the third. After the game, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma declined to give an update on his condition. It’s the playoffs, right? We’ll know more when we see Neal on the ice again.
• It’s a good bet that New York center Marty Reasoner gets called in front of the Department of Player Safety after his late-third period hit on Jussi Jokinen. It’s pretty clear from the replay that he stuck his leg directly into Jokinen’s path, and that’s the sort of dangerous play of which Sheriff Shanny takes a dim view. Reasoner earned a five-minute major for kneeing and a game misconduct from the officials. Look for Shanahan to tack on a game or two on the sidelines for his troubles.
Here’s a look at the incident: