As I said before this game, tonight would go a long way in revealing the character of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In this first round matchup, they've gotten more of a fight out of the New York Islanders than almost anyone thought coming in. NYI has earned their respect and proven they are a game opponent.
After a disappointing and embarassing 6-4 Game 4 loss, the Penguins made as many lineup changes as you'll probably ever see in the playoffs for non injury/suspension reasons. They changed two forwards- swapping out Tanner Glass and Jussi Jokinen for some speed and hunger in Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale, two players scratched previously all playoffs. They dropped usually stable veteran Mark Eaton (on the ice for six goals against in the past two games) for rookie Simon Despres. And, of course, the biggest change of all was benching Marc-Andre Fleury, the only starting goalie this era of Penguins playoffs, for veteran backup Tomas Vokoun.
Additionally with those changes, Bylsma was active in shuffling his lines. He united Jarome Iginla with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis and moved Chris Kunitz to the Evgeni Malkin / James Neal bromance line.
And, it's only one night, but it all worked. It's rare when a good plan comes together so smoothly, an although the result was lopsided, it's important to remember the Islanders controlled the play in the 1st period. They outshot the Pens 14=7 and got the better of the chances, highlighted by a Kyle Okposo effort.
Yet Vokoun was there. He stopped everything (obviously) but perhaps even more important was the control he showed. Rebounds were either non-existant or Vokoun ably managed to kick them away into non-trouble areas. A complete 180 degree reversal from goaltending output from Marc-Andre Fleury earlier in the series.
Whatever Bylsma and company said in the first intermission, it worked. The Pens adjusted to the trap/left-wing-lock defensive posturing of the Isles and broke through. The Isles were lax on a line change, and Kennedy snuck to the opposing blue-line. Kris Letang made an amazing, elevated pass through sticks and right up the middle of the ice to hit TK perfectly. With no one in front of him, Kennedy made no mistakes or hesistation with a beauty snipe over Evgeni Nabokov's glove. 1-0 Pens.
Then just 1:20 later, Kunitz out-muscled Keith Aucoin to a puck and flipped it back to the point. Goalscoring machine (and all-around machine) Douglas Murray tossed a fairly harmless looking shot that hit Marc-Andre Nabokov, bounced on his shoulder and somehow into the net to make it 2-0.
Despite the score, the key sequences of the game came moments later. John Tavares, who has clearly announced himself a superstar on the playoff stage, danced around Paul Martin, inside-out and fired a rocket that Vokoun was able to stop. Almost sensing the moment, next shift out Crosby rocketed past Lubomir Visnovsky and fought through some sad defending by Thomas Hickey and then wristed a beauty by Nabokov. 3-0 Pens and that sequence of events basically was your ballgame even though the 2nd period wasn't over.
Kris Letang would tack on a goal in the 3rd to chase Nabokov and the teams did some predictable rough-it-up garbage time garbage with empty messages for next game and that was that.
Some more thoughts on the game:
- Brad Boyes takes a penalty on the bench for hitting Malkin a game after Matt Carkner hijinks on Matt Cooke from the bench. What's up with Isles players and bench abuse?
- Crosby is becoming a puck magnet. In the second he blocked a shot in his foot and was momentarily stung. There would be no lasting damage, but this guy really can't catch a break.
- Speaking of Crosby, it's the second game in a row he's tried a "Murphy dump" pass from his own zone to a racing Iginla. Iggy got a good shot on it too, just went wide. Watch for this in the future. Sooner or later it's going to pay off. Two great players playing great off of each other.
- Pretty funny night for Travis Hamonic (who's one of the best defensemen in the league). It's been a battle with him all series, and he tried to grab Malkin during/after a Pens goal and the two jawed about it. Then in garbage time it was Vitale going after Hamonic. No good deed goes unpaid long in the playoffs.
- The Pens won tonight because they finally exhibited some lessons learne. Players like Cooke and Brenden Morrow were monsters on the forecheck, as they need to be. Making hits on defensemen behind the net were up, a lot, by the whole team.
- Injury watch: Frans Nielson left the game and wouldn't return, said to be hobbled with a "lower body injury". If he can't go (and who knows, that's a big if) that would be a huge loss for NYI to fill for Game 6 for what they like to do in the faceoff circe, and in the neutral zone. Stay tuned.
- Hard not to be happy for Kennedy. Pretty much everyone expects him not to be back. And, objectively, he had a pretty decent 2nd half of the season, only to find himself 4-times a healthy scratch for the playoffs. He was a demon out there, earning promotions and extra ice-time by hounding the puck and doing everything you'd want him to. The goal obviously counted the most, but even wihout it TK had a good game.
- Bylsma deserves credit too. He's an easy target because in some ways, it's no win for him. If the team wins, well they deserve to, they're loaded. If they lose, his every call is Monday Morning Quarterback'ed to death. For one night at least, seemingly every decision he made paid off in spades.
- And again, it was all about Vokoun. He held the fort early and wasn't really called upon too much in the 2nd or 3rd periods, but his stop on Tavares was great and he did everything possible. For stability's sake this team really needed Vokoun to be solid, nd solid he was.
The playoffs are all about opportunities and every game is a new one. The Penguins will be sky high, bolstered by Vokoun and prepping to close it out. The Islanders will be able to regroup (as they did excellently after being shutout in Game 1) and get the benefit of playing in front of their rabid fans and getting the last change. Adjustments will be made and we'll see how it goes.
But for now it's 3 down, 13 more to go.