February 11th, 2011. It was supposed to be a hockey game in Long Island but Matt Martin, Zenon Konopka, Micheal Haley and Trevor Gillies read it to be the circus in town. So they gooned it up once the score got out of control, and the result wasn't pretty.
Fast forward exactly eight weeks. The Isles are staring down the barrel of the draft lottery, the Penguins are looking forward to the the playoffs. Would it be the same? No.
Would the result be satisfying for the Penguins and their large contingent of fans at the Nassau Coliseum? Oh hell yes.
If you could believe it, within 9 minutes of the game Eric Godard completed two-thirds of the Gordie Howe hat-trick. Impressively, Godard corralled Mike Rupp's faceoff win in the offensive zone and got it to the net, where Rupp punched it in. Not pretty but who cares. Right after that draw Gillies dragged his knuckles out to the faceoff circle and challenged Godard to fight. They went, not much of meaning came out of it, but still. Godard, one assist, one fight- not bad for a guy who's played five games in calendar 2011.
Not messing around, the referees assessed Godard and Gillies 10 minute misconducts to go along with the fighting majors. NHL officiating takes a lot of shots (understandably so) but credit the refs for laying down the law to avoid a gongshow like the last time.
Micheal Haley (who's parents must not have won any spelling bees given his birth certificate) tried to low-bridge Deryk Engelland. The refs quickly whistled the minor penalty and power play specialist Zbynek Michalek cashed in to give the Pens a 2-0 edge.
Not wanting to be upstaged by his fellow clowns, soon after Konopka took a run at Arron Asham and they fought another largely uneventful bout. Again the refs weren't messing around and tacked Konopka with an instigator penalty and a 10 minute misconduct for his troubles. There would be no more fisticuffs and that's probably a credit to the hard-line stance the refs laid down, which is exactly what they ought to have done on this night.
Back to hockey, Blake "No" Comeau cashed in on a third chance to knock a rebound past Marc-Andre Fleury to bring the Islanders back to a 2-1 score. Credit Fleury for two impressive saves up close, but a little better rebound control could have prevented Comeau from getting his point blank chance. The score went 2-1 into the third period.
In the third, Blake Comeau would strike again, this time on the power play. Michael Grabner used his sensational speed to beat Kris Letang to the outside. Letang must have thought he wasn't on the kill, because he left his feet on a diving effort. Grabner wheeled behind the net and fellow defenseman Engelland made an equally ill-advised play when he overskated Grabner and gave him enough room to make a great centering pass to Comeau. From right in front, with no one in his way, Comeau made no mistakes and beat Fleury to tie the game at 2.
Mike Rupp, subbing in on the "first" line for an injured James Neal (more later), made a great play cutting to the middle and the puck got to Mark Letestu who scored on Al Montoya to give the Pens their lead back at 3-2.
Then, as if things couldn't get any more weird, they did. John Tavares got behind Fleury and did not impede him when Matt Moulson collected a puck and tossed it past the goalie and Tavares in what should have tied the score. Immediately though, the refs washed the goal out for some reason. Terrible call, Tavares in no way impacted Fleury's ability to stop the puck. The fabled hockey gods would take notice and they righted the wrong when impressive young defenseman Travis Hamonic rifled a one-time shot from the blue line that beat Fleury (who got no help from Letang who blocked his vision and failed to deflect the shot). Tied at 3-3, as it should have been.
In OT not much developed and we go to the gimmick to decide the winner. Fleury laughs at P.A. Parenteau, Tavares and No Comeau. Letang and Alex Kovalev also fail to score on Montoya. Cue Chris Kunitz who uses his patented leg-kick to forehand look before snapping it 5 hole. Pens win, Islanders improve their chances in the lottery. Everyone's happy.
A few more notes on the game:
- There's fewer things prettier in the sport of hockey than watching Kris Letang play while it's 4 on 4. All that extra space for him to operate with the puck makes for some fun.
- James Neal appeared to jam his hand/wrist when he went on the forecheck and hit an Islander defenseman in the second period. Neal showed immediate discomfort and would leave the game, unable to return. We'll obviously see his status unfold, and hopefully he doesn't join the pile of injured Penguin forwards.
- For a game with a lot of hype and potential to meltdown, things unfolded fairly well. The Isles played hard in their final home game of the season and definitely had spirit to compete with the Penguins. But for most of the night the Pens controlled the pace of play and were able to play their advantage.
- Withall the attention from top ranking NHL officials, you had to think the zebras would not be putting up with much tomfoolery. And they didn't. So again, credit to them for knowing the volatility of the situation and drawing a very hard line in the sand. After skirmishes popped up they had no tolerance and the players knew that the officials had control of the game, which is a big difference from last time around.
- Stat sheet buffet feaster of the night was Paul Martin: 28:20 played, 1 penalty, 1 shot on goal, a giveaway, a takeaway, and 4 blocked shots. As usual, Martin did a little bit of everything.
- Random thought: if John Tavares was a half step a better skater, he'd be an elite player. He's dangerous in deep, but doesn't have the get up and go that most the premier offensive guys around the league do.
- This very likely was the last time you'll ever see Eric Godard in a Penguins jersey, as he's a free agent after the season and hasn't dressed in any playoff games yet. Whether or not you appreciate the likes of enforcers in the NHL, Godard's been the ultimate "company solider". He's never been afraid to answer the bell and protect his teammates when he's in a position to do so. It's arguably the toughest position to fill in all of professional sports. So for that, we salute and thank you Godsy.
Invasion complete. Good showing by the Pens fans on the road and good enough showing by the boys in white to bring home the two points. As a result, Pittsburgh can finish no worse than 4th in the east, guaranteeing home ice advantage for at least the first round. And, even better, if the Penguins win in Atlanta on Sunday and Philadelphia loses tomorrow against these same Isles it'll be an Atlantic Division for Pittsburgh. At this point, job well done.