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Blog : Penguins Edge Islanders in High Scoring Thriller

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
Zatkoff robs Frans Zielsen during a late 2 man advantage, helping preserve the Penguins 6-4 victory. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In what was a thrilling and exciting game, the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the New York Islanders yesterday 6-4 on Long Island. This game had a definite playoff feel to it, right from the onset, and it did not fail to disappoint. It was a tail of two Penguins teams with plenty of action to go around; wild momentum swings, comebacks, extraordinary saves, you name it, it happened. I felt as if I was transported to last year’s ferocious playoff series. This game seemingly was a mirror image of many of those games.

Coming into this game I knew that this would be a struggle for the Penguins. They were coming off the heels of a very emotional and dominant win against the Canadiens, avenging their 5-1 loss to the Panthers, and were riding a wave of energy and emotion. Time, however, was not on the Penguins’ side. They had to immediately cull their emotional win and focus on their next opponent, the New York Islanders. The quick turnaround meant little rest for the Penguins who had to gear up and play a hungry Islanders team that loves to play against Pittsburgh. This also meant that it would probably take the Penguins some time to get their “game legs” under them. While New York certainly isn’t the best team (21-25-7, 49 pts), they have played the Penguins extremely well of late, including the dramatic 6 game playoff series that took the Penguins to the near brink of elimination. In fact in the 4 head-to-head games played this year, all but one (this one) were decided by 1 goal. Furthermore, coming into the game, the Islanders were riding a winning streak and were 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. Mix all of these factors together and you have the perfect recipe for a great game and even a potential “upset”.

While both teams employed the services of their backup netminders, it was the Penguins’ netminder, Jeff Zatkoff who would need to grow up…fast. The young, feisty Islanders swarmed the Zatkoff early and often, and it was Zatkoff, who had to make several “Fluery-esque” saves to help preserved the victory. In my mind Zatkoff was the reason the Penguins stood a puncher’s chance, especially in the first 10 minutes of the game. In that time, the Islanders dominated the game. They were out-muscling, out-hustling, and outright out-playing the Penguins. As a result, just 1:40 into the game Michael Grabner (Penguin slayer extraordinaire) fired a shot home after two failed clearing attempts by the Penguins to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead. Buzzing off that goal, the Isles continued to dictate the pace. After a great back-check and forced turnover by Isles forward Cal Clutterbuck on Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, the Isles Brock Nelson scored on a 2-on-1, high short side on Zatkoff. The Islanders were up 2-0 8:21 into the game.

At this point, Zatkoff could have thrown in the towel, but the young rookie steeled his resolve and it showed just 1:00 later when he came up with a huge save right in front on Islanders forward Kyle Okposo at the 9:19 mark. This save was critical because the Penguins were just getting their game legs under them and were already down 2-0. On the ensuing face-off, Sidney Crosby won the draw, carried and chipped the puck into the Islanders zone; then proceeded to win the scrum along the half-boards and made a great pass to a wide open Chris Kunitz, who fired home a one-timer from just inside the left face-off dot high glove side over Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin. The play only took 0:11 to unfold but in that span, saw a 2 goal swing. What was almost certainly a 3-0 Islanders lead, turned into a 2-1 lead, with the wave of momentum beginning to swing in favor of the Penguins.

Not to be outdone, the Crosby line went at it again. After a great fore-check and cycle, Chris Kunitz threw a pass into the crease along the near boards and Sidney Crosby redirected the puck home in traffic to immediately tie the game at 2 apiece. The Penguins clearly had taken the momentum away from not just the Islanders' players, but they took all the energy out of the usually boisterous Islander crowd. For the remainder of the 1st period, the Penguins continued to assert their will over the Islanders, completely flipping the physicality and hustle to their side. The Penguins had figured out the Islanders rhythm and strategy.

The Penguins began the 2nd Period right where they left off and continued to impose themselves on the Islanders. The Penguins killed off an early and rare Olli Matta penalty just 2:33 into the frame. Again Zatkoff came up big, robbing Brock Nelson on a half breakaway. Moments later Kunitz skated with the puck down the middle of the Islander zone and made a great drop pass to Matta who juked and jived a couple Islander defenders and scored a phenomenal goal to give the Penguins their 1st lead of the game 3-2 at the 5:30 mark of the 2nd Period. This goal was setup brilliantly by Kunitz who, after dropping the puck, had so much speed that he took 2 Islanders with him as he peeled off to make the drop pass. This created a huge void for Matta to skate in unscaythed and score his incredible goal.

As the Penguins continued to assert themselves throughout the period, they got a Power Play opportunity late in the frame that they would not let slip through their fingers. After winning the draw, the Penguins never let the puck leave the offensive zone. The Penguins were buzzing and swarming as they fired shot after shot, wearing the Islanders PK unit down. Then with about 0:30 to go on the PP, Crosby made a great cross-ice pass to Kris Letang, who pinched down to the near face-off dot, and buried a one-time shot home into a near open net. This gave the Penguins a 4-2 lead after two periods of play.

Up to this point (minus the first 10 minutes of the game), the Penguins were the aggressors. They continued to match and exceed the physicality and heart of the Islanders. But that would change as the 3rd period began. Just moments into the period, Islanders forward Matt Martin and Penguins forward Tanner Glass got into a fight. While there was no “clear winner”, the fight seemed to re-ignite the drive and enthusiasm of the Islanders bench. Less than 2:00 later, two Penguins’ defenders Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin collided, in what looked like a clown show, at center ice turning the puck over to Islanders forward Steven Bailey who skated in on an uncontested breakaway and buried the shot low blocker side by Zatkoff. Honestly, Zatkoff didn’t stand a chance. He never truly got set and Bailey had so much speed into the zone, Zatkoff had little time to react. So just 3:10 into the period and the momentum switched back to the Islanders and it was a one goal game, 4-3 Penguins. However, 2:39 later after a great fore-check by Jussi Jokinen, the Islanders turned the puck over on a failed clearance to James Neal, who wasted no time sending a cross-ice pass to Evgeni Malkin who scored into a wide open net to give the Penguins their 2 goal lead back at 5-3, with 14:00 left in regulation.

The Islanders, still riding the wave of emotion from the fight and 3rd goal, seemed to get stronger after the Malkin goal. They began to take the game to the Penguins, and the Penguins seemingly let them. The once mighty and aggressive Penguins basically pulled the hockey version of the “Prevent Defense” and allowed the Islanders to get back to their rugged, “dump & chase” strategy. And it paid off. Halfway through the period, Islanders forward John Tavares won a dumped the puck into the Penguins' zone and threw the puck to the net. As the puck sat haplessly at the feet of Zatkoff, no one, including the official knew where the puck was, except for Kyle Okposo and Matt Donovon both of whom poked at the puck and eventually pushed it over the goal line. After a lengthy review, it was determined to be a good goal. While some Penguins’ fans were upset by this call, I think it was the correct call. The Penguins’ lead was now cut to 5-4 and all of the momentum was clearly on the Islanders’ side.

Frustrated and bewildered the Penguins’ Kris Letang and Tanner Glass took two terrible penalties nearly back-to-back to give the Islanders a 5-on-3 two man advantage for 0:50. This would be the turning point of the game. After a mad scramble and great puck movement, Islanders forward Frans Nielsen had a wide open net off a great cross-ice pass and was pilfered by Zatkoff on what was to be the save of the game. This save was Frank Peterangelo’esque, and no doubt saved the day for the Penguins. Had the Islanders scored, I believe they would have ended up winning the game. As the game wound down, the Islanders pulled their goalie and had several attempts to score. Once again Zatkoff was equal to the task, stonewalling all attempts and with 0:03 left, Penguins forward Brett Sutter picked off an attempted outlet pass and scored into the empty net, giving the Penguins a 6-4 lead and victory.

Having read the recap, it is pretty easy to see the rollercoaster ride of emotions both Penguins’ and Islanders’ fans must have been feeling. For Penguins’ fans, the script of the final 10 minutes of the 3rd period was all too familiar. The Penguins, in spite of their Eastern Conference leading record (36-13-2, 74 pts), have failed to truly close out many of their games this year. While some may argue that “a win is a win”, the point cannot be glossed over. This "win is a win" mentality will work, for now, during the regular season. But I can guarantee that it will not work in the playoffs when the stakes are higher and the emotion and pressure are that much more greater than in the regular season. If you look at the flameouts the Penguins have had since their last Stanley Cup victory you will see a common pattern. The stars fail to produce, special teams break down, leads are blown, and frustrations and emotions boil over into an epic meltdown. This nearly happened to the Penguins last year against this same New York Islanders team and ultimately exposed itself against the Boston Bruins. Now is the time to extinguish this habit. The Penguins need to cement away these close games and not allow teams to mount epic comebacks, failed or successful, seemingly every game. It will catch up with them, and it will come to pass at the worst possible time, like in the playoffs. Teams like the Bruins, and heaven forbid the Devils making the playoffs, will expose the Penguins lack of mental toughness, attention to detail, and killer instinct.

For now, things are good. The Penguins are continuing to win, which I am happy about. But the Penguins can be better, especially mentally; and they will need to steel their mental toughness in their remaining games as they head down the home stretch and into the playoffs.

Follow Scott Salerno on twitter for real-time game tweets, analysis, and opinion (@sasalerno)
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