November 23, 2014

Crosby held Scoreless as Isles Sweep Home-and-Home with Pens

We are still early in a season that's already been full of statements for the Isles, but no statement has been as big as what they just accomplished on Friday and Saturday night against one of their biggest rivals in the Metropolitan Division - perhaps even their biggest rivals.

The Islanders were set to face a team that had won nine of their previous 10 games and it seemed like a very tall order to walk away with four points. A split would have made many very happy as it would still serve the purpose of keeping up with the team to beat in the division.

To walk away with all four points though, only allowing the Penguins one shootout point while keeping Sidney Crosby off of the score sheet? That's about as impressive a feat as one could have asked for this year so far.

The Isles honored Billy Smith Saturday. Photo by C. Hessel
It started with the 5-4 shootout win in Pittsburgh on Friday where they Isles poured on the offense despite giving up a goal on the first shot of the game not two minutes in. The Islanders started slow on Friday night but you could tell that despite the early goal they were getting the better of play. And within minutes we saw the Islanders pounce on what was looking like a very vulnerable opponents.

Even after the Islanders jumped out to that 3-1 lead mid way through the 1st period, you knew that it was going to be tough to hold on to. This Pens team has an offense that can turn it on in an instance.

As a whole, the game had an odd feel to it. The Penguins fans didn't seem all that into it, kind of reacting to the ebbs and flows of the games rather than trying to rally their team. It was almost a nervous feel, not much different from what Isles fans likely experienced on Saturday night.

The other odd thing about both games was that there was very little special teams play. The refs definitely swallowed the whistles on several plays from both sides, and frankly with these two going head-to-head for two in a row it was a good thing. We got to see both teams strut their stuff at 5-on-5 play, and the Isles were able to control Crosby and prevent him from dancing around too much.

Saturday night's game was really the icing on the cake. As impressive as the shootout game was - a more wide open game for both teams - the Islanders definitively outplayed Pittsburgh in Saturday's contest.

The biggest thing the Isles had issue with was navigating a very tight checking Pens defense that more often than not stood tall at the blueline and did an excellent job of giving the Isles no space up the middle and blocking away several shot attempts. It added to the whole game as physical play ramped up as time went on. For an entire period Pittsburgh was playing with the 1-0 lead, and was trying to hold onto it as the Isles did get some great chances in on Thomas Greiss. Greiss left a lot of rebounds around his net all night and the Isles really had issues cashing in.

That was until Matt Martin continued his hot streak and found a loose puck in the slot he was able to backhand in on a 3rd attempt, knotting the game at one and officially starting the turning of momentum. The Isles and their fans were in their game, and Jaroslav Halak had already made some great saves by this point. The refs were keeping their whistles in their pockets unless something was blatant. The Isles had everything working in their favor as they needed.

Brock Nelson's power-play goal was a thing of beauty, with some great passing on display from John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Tavares and Anders Lee would be the other goal scorers, with Tavares getting his as the Isles 4th and final goal. As great as it is to see him get back into the goal column, the fact that the Isles took these two games without the top line doing very much is pretty remarkable.

The Isles played a smart hockey game, and when the time came they were chippy enough with the Penguins. Steve Downie was all over the place and not in good ways. In the first period, he was frustrated at Tavares and Travis Hamonic for a hit up high along the boards and hit Tavares in the back of his head to let him know about it. With Hamonic challenging him he accepted the fight. The problem with this? His team just had an excellent scoring chance and was about to get another one that he effectively killed by accepting the fight. Later on in the 3rd, he disagreed with the refs assessment that Thomas Hickey cleanly played the body and stripped him of his stick, causing Downie to take matters into his own hands which would end his night. While the Pens were trying to figure out how to get their offense going, it was a couple of selfish antics from Downie that hurt them.

When you are playing a team like Pittsburgh you can't take anything for granted, and I liked the jump the Isles showed from the beginning in both efforts. The Saturday game definitely was tighter and the Isles made some subtle adjustments from the night before which kept the scoring low. One thing I noticed was early and often, the Isles put out the Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck line against the Crosby line. When you think about it this has been one of the Isles better lines of late so I understood what Capuano was going for but not after questioning it myself. And you know what? It worked the moment Martin put that puck into the net. That changed the whole complexion for the Isles, just like his goal on Friday night did.

Somehow, someway, you knew the Isles couldn't find it in themselves to lose on a night when they tipped their cap to Billy Smith. A win had to be in the cards, and having been at the game Smitty must have had a moment of deja vu with the style of play and the way the Isles won the game.

A tie for first this late in November is a nice thing. This is a month that generally escapes the Isles as far as wins are concerned. Right now as I mentioned earlier it's all about keeping up with the Joneses, in this case Pittsburgh. These two teams are beginning to build some cushion between themselves and the likes of Washington, New Jersey and the Rangers.

It is important to keep focused on that rather than anything else. Martin's quote after the game about needing to do this for 62 more couldn't be further from the truth. The Isles get another shot at a team that's ailed them on Monday night when the Philadelphia Flyers come to town. This team gives the Isles all sorts of problems at home, but with the game changed they have a chance to show the hockey world something else that has changed too. Having won eight of their last nine now the Isles will want to keep it going, especially against a team they've struggled against and one that has the likes of former teammates Andrew MacDonald and Mark Streit on it.

- Chris

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