May 4, 2013

Okposo, Isles Ruin Crosby's Return to Stun Pens and Even Series

Since their Game 1 showing on Wednesday night, the Islanders did a lot of talking about playing in the playoffs, adjusting to a different style, and what is required to be competitive. Both John Tavares and Evgeni Nabokov talked about how playing at a playoff intensity level was "supposed to hurt" and how they just didn't get the job done.

What we had was a young team trying to figure it out. And despite all of the talk for a different outcome, for the first seven minutes of Game 2 it looked like we were headed in the same direction.

The Islanders played a very up tempo style, trying to keep up with the Pens. But a strategy like that is doomed from the very beginning. The Pens simply skate too well for many teams, if any to beat them at that game. You're going to have to change the system and frustrate them to guard against that.

So after the Islanders got off to an extremely slow start, thanks in part to the emotional return of Sidney Crosby, Doug Weight tore into his team during a TV timeout. The Islanders had finally broken through with a goal of their own but gave it right back and the Pens were flying high with a 3-1 lead.

But as we've learned over the past month and a half, these aren't the same Islanders. They settled down for the remainder of the period and threw 21 shots at a shaky Marc-Andre Fleury.

Early in the second period Matt Moulson was the receiver of a rather clean and harmless hit from Matt Niskanen, but Kyle Okposo didn't know that. All he saw was one of the Isles stars fall to the ice. He went after Niskanen, goading him into a fight. Although the fight lasted more than one punch, it was Okposo's first punch that bloodied Niskanen and got the Islanders into the game.

It took 14 seconds for the Isles response, which was a goal from Colin McDonald outworking the Pens behind the boards and picking up a lose puck to put in from the side of the net. From that point on the worm was turning.

The Islanders were doing things the right way, playing physical and keeping the Penguins out from the middle of the ice. They allowed Evgeni Nabokov to see every shot and he made the key saves he had to.

The Isles surge consisted of a few penalty kills, which is tough to do given the personnel that Pittsburgh usually employs on their man advantages.

The puck bounced off the boards behind the nets with great force, and the Isles were sure to use this to their advantage as they busted their humps to ensure they were the quicker team to lose pucks. They were no longer hesitating on making decisions, and got the puck and tried their best to fly up the ice rather than take their time advancing it in a formation.

This all lead to a total of 42 shots on net, with the Islanders pummeling the Pens in shots attempted. That is what created the winning formula for the Isles to stun their rivals.

When it mattered, the Islanders stood tall on defense, not going down too early and trying to stand up to their much bigger opponents. Despite some really slow starts, Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald and Brian Strait all had huge games and were solid when they needed to be and frustrated the Pens' top players.

I don't think it needs to be said how huge this was, to come back from two goals down just seven minutes into the game in a building as tough as this one. But the Islanders did that.

In the past few playoff series the Isles have played, they've come home 1-1 and lost three straight games to be one and done. But in each of the prior three series, the Isles dominated a road game. This one had quite a different complexion with the Islanders getting off to the slow start they had.

On Sunday the playoffs return to the Nassau Coliseum for the first time in six years. The team and their fans that these next two games can give them their fist home playoff victory since April 2002.

At a minimum, the Islanders need to split their two upcoming home games in front of a raucous crowd that's been starving for play like this since 2002, really. Will this be the year the Isles finally break through at home? Can they turn this series around into an unlikely direction?

- Chris

No comments: