Game Three: Penguins 5, Islanders 4 (OT) — Isles Lose a Tough One at Coliseum

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Kevin Schultz, Islanders Point Blank:

UNIONDALE, NY — In front of a raucous crowd at the Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders took the Pittsburgh Penguins to overtime in Game Three of their first round series. In the extra session, the Penguins would win it as defender Brian Strait was called for holding Sidney Crosby. On the ensuing power play, Chris Kunitz roofed a shot past Evgeni Nabokov for the 5-4 win, in front of a stunned crowd.

After the game, Strait blamed “[himself] more than anything,” for the penalty. “I just got a little too over aggressive on him there. Lost body position… Doesn’t matter what the call was.”

Strait had played a tough, physical game — and series — up to that point. He logged three hits and nearly 20 minutes of ice time. The call was certainly a hold, but given how loosely the referees called the rest of the game it was a tough one to make in overtime. The goal sent the crowd home upset, one that was rocking at a fever pitch all afternoon for the first Islanders home playoff game since 2007.

Prior to the start of the game, the Islanders game ops did their best to get the fans excited. A video of Eric Cains punching Maple Leafs during the 2002 playoffs was shown on the Jumbrotron, followed by Kyle Okposo’s fight with Matt Niskanen on Friday night. As the music blasted and the Jumbotron implored fans to ‘rock this barn’, the Islanders came out to the ice, an American flag unfurled in the crowd, and it was playoff time.

“Even driving here this morning you could see the parking lot it was 9:30, 10 o’clock and it was completely packed,” defender Travis Hamonic said of the crowd. “Tonight you could tell they were ready to blow and they did an unbelievable job. It really sent chills up my spine after the national anthem.”

To answer their fans energy, the Islanders stormed out of the gates. Less than two minutes in Matt Moulson would give the Isles a 1-0 lead and send the Coliseum into a frenzy that hasn’t been seen in quite a long time. Moulson and Kyle Okposo jammed away at a loose rebound in front of Marc-Andrew Fleury and were able to get the puck over the line.

At nearly the six minute mark, Michael Grabner made an excellent play to setup his team’s second goal. Grabner stole the puck in the offensive zone, circled behind the net, and threw a perfect pass in the faceoff circle to Casey Cizikas. Cizikas made no mistake, firing it past Fleury and leapt at the glass along the side boards.

The Pens scored twice in the middle of the first period to finally put a damper on the absolutely raucous crowd at the Coliseum. The Islanders took two penalties, one of them a really bad play from Hamonic, to give the Penguins a five-on-three.

First, Mark Streit went off for hooking and then, on the ensuing penalty kill, Hamonic grabbed a Penguin right in front of a referee. The Penguins setup their powerplay and tied it at two off of goals from Jarome Iginla and Chris Kunitz. Just like that, the game was tied at two and the Coliseum had lost a lot of its energy.

“Execution on the PK, from a detail standpoint, it has to be better,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said following the game.

The Pens’ power play has been trouble for the Islanders so far in this series. Pittsburgh was 3-for-5 at the Coliseum today and is 6-for-13 on the series.

With a minute to go in what was a wild first period, Pittsburgh would take a 3-2 lead. Sidney Crosby powered down the wing just out of Lubomir Visnovsky’s reach and found a streaking Pascal Dupuis to knock it past Nabokov.

While the first was wild, pandemonium, and an offensive display the second period took a slower pace, with both teams grinding out the period. The teams were even in shots at eight a piece, and the Pens did hunker down more defensively, led by Fleury who stopped everything the Islanders threw at him. Pittsburgh would add one to their lead at the end of the frame, a Douglas Murray slapper that looked like it may have tipped off a defender on its way past Nabokov.

Late in the period Matt Martin took a holding call and it looked like the Penguins would have an excellent opportunity to extend their lead. But a gutsy penalty kill by the Islanders kept it 4-2 as the period ended. Defenders Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic were both out on the ice for the entire penalty plus another nine seconds, absolutely gassed as the team headed to the locker room.

In the third, the Islanders were the better team by a mile and scored twice to send the game to overtime. They controlled the play and had the Penguins back on their heels the whole time, leading the shots on goal 13-3 in that frame.

In a big moment, one that summoned the ghost of Shawn Bates, Kyle Okposo attempted to bring the Islanders back with a breakaway goal on Fleury. Shorthanded, Frans Nielsen took a bouncing puck and fed it across the ice to a streaking Okposo. The pass was behind Okposo, but he reached back to knock it up to himself and beat Fleury to bring the Islanders within one.

Later in the period, Josh Bailey fed a cross-ice pass into the Islanders zone that found John Tavares with time and space. You do not give John Tavares time and space. Tavares fired a laser through a defender and past Fleury to tie the game, inducing chants of “MVP” from the Coliseum crowd.

After the Penguins made a final push in the last few minutes of the period, the Islanders defense would hold and force overtime. The teams would feel each other out for the first five minutes of the extra session, before Crosby drew the penalty on Strait. Working along the red line, Crosby dug in hard and got half a step on Strait. The Pens forward ended up on his backside, and got the arm raise from the official. It took 33 seconds of the man-advantage for Kunitz to roof the overtime winner.

After the game, Capuano was happy with the battle level and work ethic of his team.

“The guys worked hard five-on-five,” the coach said. “I thought we were real good tonight. We pushed the play, we dictated the pace. We didn’t stand around like in Game One.”

He did say that the penalty killing unit needed to be better. But the coach wanted to take things one game at a time; “Suns gonna come up tomorrow, it takes four to win the series… You’re gonna face some adversity.”

The Islanders will try to recover from a tough home loss on Tuesday night in Game Four.