By Allan Muir
The NHL playoffs revolve around the discovery of unlikely heroes. And they don’t come much less likely than Brooks Orpik.
The stay-at-home defender failed to score a single goal during the 48-game regular season. He’d never lit the lamp in 77 postseason contests. But when Tyler Kennedy put one on a tee for him 7:49 into overtime, Orpik blasted a miraculous shot that somehow managed to hit the crossbar and both posts before crossing the goal line to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a series-clinching 4-3 win over the gritty New York Islanders.
Despite being outplayed in every facet of the game by the Isles, the Penguins relied on character and experience to fight back from three deficits before finally ending the season of the gutsy eighth seed.
Fair to say the Isles deserved a better fate. They outshot Pittsburgh 38-21. They outhit the Pens. They crushed them in the face-off circle. But they couldn’t put them away when when they had the chance, and that’s the difference between a team that goes on and a team that goes home.
John Tavares, Colin McDonald and Michael Grabner scored for the Islanders. Jarome Iginla, Pascal Dupuis and Paul Martin also tallied for the Pens, who now move on to face the Ottawa Senators in the second round.
Here are some observations from the game:
• It’s nice and all that the Pens just won a playoff series for the first time since 2010, but getting past the No. 8 seed shouldn’t have been so difficult. With a chance to close out an inferior side, they offered up an uninspired performance that never should have gotten them to overtime, let alone spared them a do-or-die Game 7. After being outplayed by the Islanders in four of the six games, this wasn’t a win as much as an escape. If not for a sizzling power play that clicked at a rate of one-in-three chances, they might not have been so lucky.
• Evgeni Malkin seemed to have little stomach for the battle early on (maybe that surprisingly stiff hit delivered by Grabner early in the first period took some of the starch out of him), but with the game on the line, he responded magnificently with a pair of assists that showcased his game-breaking ability.
Malkin went end-to-end to set up the tying goal late in the third, driving through four Islanders and around the net before setting up Paul Martin’s seeing-eye point blast. That one was all about puck patience. And on the winner, Malkin won a puck battle in the corner with Isles captain Mark Streit before finding Kennedy, who then relayed it to Orpik for his moment of glory. That one was all about power. You see him wreak that much havoc in 10 minutes, you wonder what kind of damage he might inflict if the switch is flipped on when the puck drops. His teammates are hoping he finds it soon. Considering how tight this series was, it’s pretty clear he’s going to have to come closer to a complete game if the Pens are to go deep.
• Casey Cizikas. Wow. If that kid were a free agent this summer, he’d have 29 teams knocking on his agent’s door. Tough (he survived a scary skate-to-the-throat incident in the first period), quick and tenacious, he’s the sort of third-line energy type that a winning team can rely on. The Isles are lucky to have him.
• When the Isles are dwelling on this loss over the summer — this one’s going to haunt them for a looong time — they’ll look back at their missed opportunities in the second period as the point at which Game 6 slipped away. Their forecheck kept the Pens hemmed in their own zone so effectively that Pittsburgh went more than eight minutes without a shot on net. The pressure led to three power play chances that generated some prime scoring chances, but their agonizing insistence on over-passing to set up the perfect tap-in — and their inability to finish when they actually did direct the puck at Tomas Vokoun — left them clinging to a 2-1 lead that slipped away when Dupuis scored on Pittsburgh’s third shot, 10:59 into the frame.
The Isles crafted an effective game plan and never let up on their ferocious checking or the defensive structure that saw them quickly close in on the puck carrier and cut off passing and shooting lanes. But in the end, they couldn’t match Pittsbugh’s ability to finish the chances New York allowed them. Of course, that .842 save percentage Evgeni Nabokov posted might have helped their cause.
• Mike Milbury made an interesting point on the NBC postgame show: Vokoun may have won this series for the Penguins, but is he really the guy you want carrying the ball the rest of the way? No argument that he was the difference-maker for Pittsburgh. He put up a shutout in the pivotal fifth game, then spent most of Game 6 under siege while his defense fumbled away clearing chances and left attackers to stand in the greasy areas unmolested. He stopped 67 of 70 shots for a league-leading .957 save percentage to give the Pens a chance to win — something Marc-Andre Fleury failed to do. And it’s also true that he’s stopped a lot of pucks over the past decade, though mostly with non-playoff teams. So is it fair to say that Vokoun can’t be trusted? Milbury makes some sense here. At this point, Vokoun deserves to start against Ottawa (probably Tuesday or Wednesday, by my scientific projections), and to keep rolling even after he inevitably loses one. But he isn’t the guy you’re paying nearly $6 million a year to lead the team to the Cup. That’s Marc-Andre Fleury, and as soon as the moment dictates, he should be back between the pipes. At least, until he melts down again…
• There are going to be plenty of love letters written to the Islanders after they showered themselves with distinction in this series. They deserve them all. A three-legged underdog coming into the showdown with the Pens, they gave the best team in the East all it could handle over the course of five compelling games (the opener, not so much). They also gave the Senators, and other teams if the Pens happen to advance, the introductory chapter on how to beat Pittsburgh. The Isles proved that their defense becomes a turnover machine when facing physical pressure, or even the hint of it, as Kris Letang proved when he gave away the puck that Grabner deposited behind Vokoun. And this is not a particularly big or physical Islanders team. The Sens are bigger, stronger and meaner than the Isles and you can bet they’ll start tenderizing Pittsburgh’s blueliners from the moment the puck drops. Unless Vokoun has the book on his former partner in Florida, Craig Anderson, they’ll have to tighten up considerably to keep things close.
• As well as this group played, it’s likely the Islanders’ roster will undergo a significant facelift next season. Along with 2010 first-rounder Brock Nelson, who made his debut on Saturday, top prospects Ryan Strome, Nino Niederreiter, Griffin Reinhart, Matt Donovan and Calvin de Haan are likely to challenge for full-time roles. And if the Isles are not entirely sold on Nabokov’s ability to take them to the next level, they have some kid named Tim Thomas in the system who might be able to help. If that doesn’t work out, they could always repatriate Roberto Luongo…