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NHL playoffs: Sidney Crosby returns, but Islanders even series with Penguins

Brian Strait Brian Strait and the Islanders improved their physical defensive play on Friday. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

By Sarah Kwak

As if anybody didn’t know before Game 2 of Pittsburgh’s series against the New York Islanders, Sidney Crosby made his presence so very known on Friday night. Despite scoring a pair of goals in 23:21 ice time, the captain, playing his first game since breaking his jaw on March 30, couldn’t help his team fend off a furious attack by the Islanders, who erased a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Penguins, 4-3, and even the series at one game apiece.

Here are some thoughts and observations from a surprising night:

• Early in the game, it seemed like déjà vu all over again, just that same old story: Crosby again demonstrating his singular talent after a long absence. Recall Nov. 21, 2011, when the superstar center played his first game -- against the Islanders, no less -- after almost a year away from the game because of a severe concussion. He scored on his third shift, then picked up three more points before the night was through. Well, he outdid himself on Friday night in Pittsburgh, scoring on just his second shift and again on his fourth. He finished with a game-high eight shots. Any worry about Crosby’s readiness, his conditioning, his ability to see the ice  while wearing that rather cumbersome jaw-guard face shield disappeared early on. He may have been sidelined for more than a month, but you wouldn’t know that from his play in Game 2.

GAME 2: Recap | Boxscore | Highlights | Complete postseason schedule

• Despite Pittsburgh’s whirlwind start, credit the Islanders, one of the most resilient clubs this season, for making this game actually worth watching. In the 5-0 whooping they took in Game 1 on Wednesday, they never really looked like they belonged in the playoffs. But despite the Penguins’ fast start in Game 2, New York fought back -- literally. Two nights ago, Pittsburgh had punished the Islanders physically, the Pens using their bodies to whip the Isles into submission. But in the second period, Islanders forward Kyle Okposo had enough and challenged Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen to a fight that revived the underdogs. Within six minutes. the score was tied, and the Penguins were caught on their heels.

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• In Game 1, Islanders center John Tavares, who led them with 28 goals and 47 points this season, was virtually silenced. He finished his playoff debut -1 and was held without a shot on goal for the first time all season. He came out determined in Game 2 and paced New York with six shots, four of them in the first period. Against the offensively explosive Penguins, the Islanders will only be as successful as Tavares and his linemate Matt Moulson can make them. Though they got goals from Colin McDonald and Matt Martin in the second period, it was the offensive chances that Tavares and Moulson generated that kept the Penguins defending in their zone instead of pressing the attack and scoring.

• The most impressive bounce-back, however, may not have been Crosby or Tavares, but rather Isles goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Two nights after he was pulled in Game 1 after allowing four goals on 15 shots, he again started slowly. However, by the second period he came out a new man. Controlling rebounds, seeing through screens, and reading plays before they developed, he looked much more like a 12-year veteran with 79 postseason starts on his resume.

• The Islanders certainly benefitted from some fortuitous bounces. Their first goal went off of Penguins defenseman Paul Martin’s skate, and their last was a fortunate rebound off the endboards that Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury ended up knocking in himself. But the old hockey maxim, that luck follows hard work, applies here. Aside from the first 10 minutes of the game, the Islanders proved to be the better team. But will it last? The Penguins, though they will probably never admit it, might be guilty of underestimating their opponent. The rest of the hockey world was already dismissing the Isles after Game 1, so why wouldn’t Pittsburgh? With this Isles win, it sets up an intriguing afternoon meeting on Sunday at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders' confidence will be high, but a veteran team like the Penguins? They’ll come in hungry to take back home-ice advantage and squash the upstarts.

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