By Sarah Kwak
Well, it turns out that the 5-0 blowout from Game 1 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders was a pretty misleading opening act. Since that game, which the Penguins dominated, each meeting has been a wildly exciting and competitive contest. You want sound goaltending, by-the-book defense, blocked shots or clogged neutral zones? Change the channel. At this point, this series is all about entertainment value.
Game 4 on Tuesday at Nassau Coliseum delivered another frenzied night, as the Penguins and Isles traded goals all contest. New York finally took a lead midway through the third period, when John Tavares banged in his own rebound for the game-winner as the Isles defeated Pittsburgh 6-4 to tie up the series at two games apiece.
• Let’s just get this out of the way: The goaltending Tuesday night was pretty horrendous on both sides of the ice, but the goalie that’s going to be haunted by this game is Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Why? Because he probably just played himself onto the bench for Game 5. With each passing minute, it seems the 28-year-old goalie becomes less and less sure of himself. He’s leaving rebounds left, right and center, giving the Islanders’ relentless scorers second and third chances. Yes, Fleury has a Stanley Cup, but he also had a big and steady defense corps in front of him in 2009 (among them Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill and Sergei Gonchar) clearing rebounds and otherwise helping him out. His postseason save percentage for the last two years now sits at .851; since winning the Cup it is an equally underwhelming .881.
• The Penguins welcomed back defenseman Brooks Orpik, who’s been sidelined with a lower-body injury since April 23. He got off to a shaky start, taking an ill-advised retaliation roughing penalty seven minutes into the game. The more critical return for Pittsburgh was actually winger James Neal, who scored on his fourth shift back since Game 1. Skating with Evgeni Malkin, Neal has become one of the most skillful scorers in the NHL. The chemistry the two have fostered over the last couple years has elevated both of their games. With Neal out the last two games, you could tell Malkin at times looked off, like he was trying to do too much by himself instead of using those around him. Well, now that his linemate is back, it’s no surprise to see Malkin making big plays, leading a couple of 2-on-1 rushes with Neal, both of which resulted in goals.
• With about 7 minutes left in the first period, Sidney Crosby took a puck to the neck. I mean, my goodness, can’t this guy catch a break already? And don’t go blaming the SI cover jinx. We put Crosby on the cover in Canada before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and we all know how that went. Lining in front of Islanders defenseman Brian Strait as he wound up to take a shot from the point, Crosby was hit when the resulting blast deflected off a stick. Though the Penguins captain didn’t miss a shift — he was back on the ice two minutes later — he was not quite so omnipresent Thursday as he had been in his first two games. He went went 4-for-18 in the face-off circle; that’s 22 percent. Contrast that to his win percentage in his first two games (54 percent), and that’s got to raise a few eyebrows. He picked up an assist on Pascal Dupuis’s goal early in the third, which put the Penguins up 4-3, but he didn’t look like the Crosby we had seen in Games 2 and 3.
• It’s been nice to see Islanders forward Kyle Okposo really come into his own in this series. He had undershot the high expectations set for him early in his career, largely because of nagging injuries that slowed him the last couple years. He’s been healthy all season, and still didn’t finish in the top five in scoring for New York. But in his first taste of playoff hockey, the 6’1”, 200-pound winger from St. Paul, Minn. has found his game and been an important part of why the Islanders have tied the series against the top-seeded Penguins. On Tuesday, he led Islanders forwards (by more than three minutes) with 23:53 of ice time. He picked that momentum-shifting fight in Game 2, and he’s got three goals already, including one Tuesday which he banked off of Fleury, who was – surprise — caught out of position.