This series was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Penguins. After demolishing the Islanders 5-0 in Game 1, you could almost hear Morgan Freeman narrating their march to the next round. (No? Just me? OK, then.)
But after that initial pasting, the Islanders decided that they wanted to savor their first playoff appearance since 2007. What resulted were wide-open games that featured overtime heroics, wild momentum swings and delirious, bottle-throwing Long Island crowds as the Isles fought back to tie the series at 2-2. Game 5 in Pittsburgh would be pivotal, and each side had a glaring question mark in net that needed to be addressed. The Penguins got their answer in the form of a 4-0 shutout that put them back in control, 3-2, as they return to New York for a potentially decisive Game 6 on Saturday night. The Islanders, on the other hand, have a tough choice to make.
This contest could’ve been titled A Tale of Two Goalies. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma chose to go with veteran Tomas Vokoun as his starter, and with good reason: Marc Andre-Fleury sported a garish .890 save percentage for the series and had let in some real clunkers in recent games -- goals that indicated his confidence had been shaken. Vokoun was solid as a backup during the regular season, posting a 13-4 record, 2.45 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. Still, he hadn’t played since April 22 or started a playoff game since 2007, when he suited up for the Predators. On the other end of the ice, the Isles’ Evgeni Nabokov was equally as disappointing as Fleury. Nabokov's cringe-inducing .846 series save percentage and 4.56 GAA trailed him like a cloud coming into Game 5, and he was easily the weak link on a team that had been keeping up with the Penguins in all other facets of the game.
From the drop of the puck, it was evident that both coaches wanted their teams to play a more buttoned-up style. The first period featured few sustained passing sequences by either side as they clogged the neutral zone and stepped up defensively at the blueline to stymie rushes up the ice. Even the Isles’ and Pens’ first lines looked tentative and disjointed, and there were a number of missed passes and icings while the play in the corners was rough from the get-go. New York’s Travis Hamonic quickly opened up his checking account with a wallop on Chris Kunitz, and Brooks Orpik returned the favor about 20 seconds later by dumping Kyle Okposo behind the Penguins’ net. The game’s first 10 minutes featured few true scoring chances for either team, but the ice opened up from there.
Vokoun looked jittery on the first batch of shots he faced. He was initially tested at 12:44 of the first period off an Islanders rush, when Michael Grabner’s shot bounced right out of his breadbasket for a juicy Colin McDonald rebound opportunity. Soon after, Vokoun made a nice stop as Okposo bore down on a semi-breakaway, but it was perhaps more luck than skill as the goalie sheepishly looked behind him after the save, as if thinking the puck had gone over the goal line. There were also a number of shots where Vokoun juggled an easy catch or failed to corral the rebound, and although no pucks found the back of the net, Byslma had to be questioning his decision to sit the battle-tested Fleury.
At the other end, Nabokov seemed to have put his demons behind him in the first period. His first major save came off a beautiful play by Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang: Malkin entered the zone and dished to a swooping Letang on the right side of the ice. The defenseman niftily kicked the puck to his stick and took a shot on goal that caromed around. Malkin managed to get in another attempt before Nabokov finally covered up. Saves on Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz followed, and Nabkov emerged from the first 20 minutes unscathed.
The second period was a completely different story, as Pittsburgh’s breakthrough came via Tyler Kennedy -- the Penguins’ best player through the game’s first 30 minutes. Byslma gave the prickly forward the nod after he sat out the series’ first four games, and Kennedy made sure his coach would not regret that decision. Along with linemate Joe Vitale, he was a constant nuisance in the Islanders’ zone, hitting everything in sight and dredging the corners for loose pucks. New York’s Casey Cizikas has made a name for himself in this series by doing the exact same thing, and it speaks to the wonderfully populist nature of playoff hockey that erstwhile role players can have such a big impact during a postseason run.
After banging bodies for a little less than a period and a half, Kennedy found himself going in on Nabokov alone after Letang lasered a pass through the middle of the ice. The Islanders were caught badly behind the play, and could only watch as Kennedy picked the top-right corner to beat Nabakov and put the Pens ahead. Kennedy would finish with 14:11 of ice time (Vitale totaled 10:18), and you can be sure that he’ll be on the first team roster as the playoffs progress.
For Nabokov and New York, the game only went downhill there from there, as 1:22 after Kennedy’s snipe, Pittsburgh defenseman Douglas Murray fluttered a shot from the left point that clipped Nabokov’s right shoulder and fell into the net. It was a soft goal, and the Russian netminder skated around outside his crease, head down, a thousand-yard stare on his face. It was easy to tell that the wheels were coming off, but Isles’ coach Jack Capuano decided to stick with his No. 1 for the time being.
John Tavares almost gave the Islanders a crucial, momentum-changing goal immediately after Murray’s tally, but Vokoun, who had settled into a nice rhythm, was up to the task of stopping him. As Tavares received the puck in the high slot with a fair amount of forward momentum, he unleashed a low slapper that forced Vokoun to react very quickly. He got his left pad out just in time. The Hart Trophy candidate also had a nice scoring chance thwarted after he walked by Paul Martin in the left circle, but it was the stop on the slap shot that might prove to be the turning point in this series.
The backbreaking goal that put the Pens up 3-0 and the game out of reach was scored by Sidney Crosby, who had been bottled up in the first period. Twice he'd given the puck away near the offensive blue line, uncharacteristic gaffes for a player with his superb vision and hockey sense. Still, his perfectly placed, soccer-like aerial pass to Jarome Iginla early in the second seemed to get his creative juices flowing, and his goal was a thing of beauty. After receiving a breakout pass from Iginla near the red line, Crosby slalomed his way into the Islanders’ zone, putting the puck under Thomas Hickey’s stick, then using his prodigious lower-body strength to fend off a challenge from Lubomir Visnovsky. Nabokov was left helpless as Crosby threaded a shot into the far side of the net, and just like that the game was decided.
It was interesting that Capuano didn’t seem to change his team’s strategy after it fell behind. Breakout passes became possible as the teams began to skate more freely, but the Islanders didn't try to stretch the ice and create odd-man rushes. Instead, they continued to play a somewhat tepid trap game that may have cost them a chance at a comeback and they allowed the Pens' second goal. There was also a lack of grit in their play, which is a must for any playoff team that has fallen behind in an opponent’s building.
The one change that Capuano did make could have consequences for the rest of the series. After Letang scored on a power play with 5:43 left (off a beautiful backhand feed from Crosby), Nabokov was pulled in favor of backup Kevin Poulin. While Poulin only faced four shots and did not allow a goal, he might be between the pipes when the teams take the ice at Nassau Coliseum for Game 6. Even though he has far less experience than Nabokov, Poulin is probably a safer bet at this point than a goalie who appears to be questioning himself. As for Vokoun, he stood tall with 31 saves in his shutout victory. He'll be the starter as the Penguins try to close out the series out. Their goalie question answered (for the moment), their eyes are again squarely set on the Cup.