What was lost in the euphoria surrounding the Islanders’ first playoff appearance in six years was that playoff games, by their very nature, can be painful.
It is a lesson the Islanders learned Sunday afternoon.
“We played [well]. We played a good game. We need to regroup and know that we’re playing some good hockey. We’re creating opportunities and believe in ourselves,” said John Tavares after the Islanders’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Pittsburgh leads the best-of-seven series 2-1. Game 4 is Tuesday night at the Coliseum.
Chris Kunitz’s power-play goal 8:44 into the extra session was the game-winner. Sidney Crosby drew the penalty by forcing Brain Strait to taking a holding penalty as the best player in the world curled toward Evgeni Nabokov.
For good measure, Crosby recorded the primary assist on Kunitz’s game-winner. The Penguins’ captain finished with three points — all on assists. Kunitz had two goals, and Jarome Iginla, Pascal Dupuis and Douglas Murray added one each.
“[The assists are] typical [of what] Sidney Crosby can do,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I like [his] drawing the penalty the best.”
Yesterday’s game was only Crosby’s second in the last 16 games. He suffered a broken jaw when he was struck by a Brooks Orpik slapshot in the Penguins’ 2-0 win over the Islanders at CONSOL Energy Center on March 30
“He hasn’t played a ton of hockey. He isn’t totally there [conditioning-wise],” Bylsma said. “His play down low in the overtime period [is indicative of what he can do].”
Kunitz’s game-winner was merely the final scene of an incredible three-act play authored by the Atlantic Division rivals. The teams experienced momentum surges throughout.
The Islanders jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 5:41 thanks to goals from Matt Moulson (1:43) and Casey Cizikas (5:41).
But the Islanders could not grow the lead despite pressuring a back-on-their-heels Penguins squad. Some of it was due to Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 32 saves. Some of it was a first-time playoff team making mistakes, such as Michael Grabner’s drop pass at the blue line creating an offsides.
And much of it was yielding three power-play goals. Pittsburgh was 3-for-5 with the man advantage Sunday afternoon, including the game’s first two goals which tied the game late in the first period.
“Your penalty kill obviously starts in goal and works its way out. We have a certain structure that we want to use,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said. “We took some wrong routes [Sunday] on our penalty kill. The entries for them were way too easy. They established zone time right away, and they were able to work the puck in the zone. When you allow that to happen, with the skill guys that they have, they’re going to take advantage of it.
“To me, when I look at the penalty kill, it’s the first eight seconds, it’s the desperation. We won some key faceoffs tonight; we never cleared the puck 200 feet. That all comes back to haunt you and that’s what happened. Execution on the PK, from a details standpoint, has to be better.”
Down 4-2 in the third, the Islanders fought back to tie the game. Kyle Okposo’s second goal of the series cut the deficit to 4-3. Tavares tied the game 5:17 later with his first of the series.
“Your best players are going to be your best players for us to have a chance,” Capuano said.
They were, but they are down 2-1 in a series that, arguably, they should be leading. Yet, rather than frustration, the Islanders feel good.
“The sun is going to come up tomorrow,” Capuano said. “It takes four to win the series.”
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman for coverage of the Islanders and Rangers throughout the playoffs.