|Game #81 reminds me of someone. Could it be...Satan?|
The Penguins would play Game #81 without the services of defensemen Kris Letang, Derrick Pouliot, and Christian Ehrhoff, meaning that Pittsburgh would only have five defensemen to split the game's 60 minutes amongst.
**UPDATE** Pittsburgh's Dejan Kovacevic is reporting that Kris Letang is out for the season, and will not return to the Penguins regardless of their playoff situation.
The Islanders had already clinched a playoff berth by virtue of the Boston Bruins' recent collapse, and their primary points of emphasis for the game were seeding and the Art Ross Trophy scoring race, which was tied at 83 points between the Pens' Sidney Crosby and the Islanders' captain John Tavares.
Jaroslav Halak, he who singularly banished the Penguins in the 2010 playoffs while playing for the Montreal Canadians, started between the pipes for the Islanders while Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the creases for the team in black & gold.
First Period Action:
The Penguins' offensive tactic for this pivotal game was evident early: strong dump and chase, and deny the Islanders entry with possession.
New York almost struck first at the 3:30 mark, with a wide slapshot from the blue line bouncing off the dasher and settling in front of a sprawled Fleury, but a desperation snow angel kept the vulcanized rubber out of the twine and the score at 0-0.
David Perron and Evgeni Malkin had a little chemistry, and Malkin nearly missed sliding a shot past Halak from the right post.
Daniel Winnik had a great chance in the slot following a Crosby feed, and then Crosby found Patric Hornqvist after spinning off a check in the corner, but in both cases, a deep-in-his-crease Halak made the stop to keep the Penguins off of the scoreboard.
Head coach Mike Johnston stuck to his guns and once again started his fourth line in the Islanders' defensive zone after a television timeout, and while the Penguins were able to keep the puck penned for a little while, no scoring chance resulted.
On their ensuing rush up the ice, a hustling Patric Hornqvist forced Thomas Hickey to slash him in an attempt to impede #72's speed, and Hickey was whistled off for two minutes.
Okay, everyone: take a deep breath in.
|"Inconclusive? Why, how con-VEEN-ient!"|
Hickey's penalty....breathe out...put the Penguins much-maligned power-play back on the ice, and following a Crosby faceoff win, Patric Hornqvist tried to stuff home a loose puck from behind the net.
Halak reached back across his body, and as the players converged in the crease, the puck flipped up atop of Halak's catching mitt, blocking the overhead view of the goal line.
After a long video review, the play was ruled "inconclusive" and Pittsburgh's tough luck with NHL referees continued.
...and speaking of tough luck, on the ensuing faceoff, the Islanders went up the ice on a set breakout and once again, the Penguins surrendered a shorthanded goal (this time to vaunted finisher Casey Cizikas) and New York was up 1-0.
At this point, the Penguins' power-play is no longer a comedy of errors, it's a tragedy of historical hockey proportions.
|"Want to pass the puck around? Oh hi Mark."|
The Penguins' power-play is so bad, so inept, so incompetent, that I wish there was only a movie to represent its awfulness...
...anyway, Pittsburgh would try to rally, but Fleury had to save the Pens' bacon with a great save from the high slot. At this point, the Islanders had been outshot 15 to 3 and all four of Pittsburgh's lines had been rolling with success in everything but goals.
Point in fact, through 16 minutes, the Pens looked the best they've looked in months: tremendous jump, outstanding pursuit and retrieval of dump-ins, and a clear proclivity toward putting pucks on the net instead of passing and playing along the periphery.
With two minutes left, the Islanders initiated sustained pressure and had Brandon Sutter and his linemates gasping for air.
The Penguins would get the period's last scoring chance, when a WIDE OPEN Chris Kunitz did what Chris Kunitz has done in the second half of the season, and simply failed to beat a square and positioned Halak.
The horn sounded with the Pens trailing the Isles 1-0, but with Pittsburgh outshooting their New York opponent 17-5.
Second Period Action:
Sidney Crosby nearly tied the game 1:30 into the second period when an Islanders' clearing attempt deflected back toward Halak and Crosby corralled the bouncing puck in time to try a forehand-to-backhand move that the New York netminder barely got a glove on.
The Islanders' Eric Boulton— perhaps by evil design— took an unnecessary penalty to put the Penguins back on the power-play. Crosby won the faceoff in the Isles' zone, but the Penguins couldn't get a shot through to Halak.
Predictably, the Isles then sprinted down the ice on a 2-on-1 with Crosby back defending. The Penguins' forward split the two players, taking away the cross-ice pass and allowing Fleury to focus exclusively on the shooter, Thomas Hickey.
Fleury flashed the leather and made perhaps a season-saving glove save on Hickey's wrister. Shortly after the Isles killed off the Pens' second man advantage of the night.
Winnik and Crosby had a chance for a 2-on-1, but Winnik made up his mind to defer to Crosby before the play even developed, and the trade deadline addition skipped a primo scoring chance to try and thread a difficult pass to Crosby (which was predictably knocked away, leading to an Isles scoring chance at the other end).
Following a good Lapierre forecheck (yes, I just said something positive about Maxim Lapierre), Blake Comeau had a wide open shot from the point that had junior varsity mustard, a clear sign that Comeau's wrist is still bothering him.
Still, the modified fourth line continued to apply significant pressure and through half of the game had given the Isles' defenders fits trying to defend.
Steve Downie was then penalized two minutes for being Steve Downie (he made a clean hip check behind the net, nothing more), putting the dangerous John Tavares on the ice with a chance to put Pittsburgh down two goals.
The Pens were able to kill the penalty with the only real New York threat undone by a Tavares exploding stick.
Over the final three minutes of the second period, each Penguin line on the ice was able to muster a significant scoring chance, but Pittsburgh was unable to procure any second chance opportunities, in part because.....
OH. MY. GOD.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you the following important message:
No, that's not a typo. No, I'm not being ironic. Yes, I'm as astounded as the rest of you...though perhaps not as astounded as Scuderi himself looked immediately after the puck crossed the red line.
Scuderi's goal with just 6 seconds left in the second period came with a Crosby assist, putting #87 into first place in the NHL's Art Ross Trophy scoring race.
Through two periods, the score was tied 1-1, with the Penguins outshooting the Islanders 28-13.
Third Period Action:
The Pens continued to carry play into the third period, and Halak's previous impeccable rebound control suddenly started to show some cracks as he couldn't swallow two early shots.
Fleury then snagged another point-blank shot from Anders Lee to keep the Penguins tied, but an unmarked John Tavares bounced a huge rebound past the Pittsburgh netminder to once again put New York ahead, 2-1, and create a tie atop the Art Ross scoring race leaderboard.
Tavares' goal took a lot of energy out of the Consol Energy Center crowd, and Anders Lee got himself several more outstanding scoring chances but a focused Fleury kept his teammates in the game.
Perhaps because of the urgency, Johnston changed tactics and allowed Crosby and the first line take the draw in the offensive zone following this particular TV timeout. The tactic generated good possession, but once again the Penguins were unable to beat Halak.
The Islanders started trapping the Penguins in earnest, daring Pittsburgh try and skate through them in the neutral zone. Perhaps even more of an enemy to the Pens than the trap was the fact that the home team looked exhausted: gone was the jump from the first two stanzas.
The Isles would predictably turtle as the game hit 5 minutes left, and they were content to merely clear their own end and force Pittsburgh to expend their energy retrieving the puck and trying to break back into the offensive zone.
The Islanders would make the game 3-1 when speedster Michael Grabner went wide from his own end and coasted past a clearly exhausted Ian Cole before airmailing a wrist shot past Fleury.
The Penguins fans let the team hear it, booing in earnest.
Fleury was pulled with just under 2 minutes left in the game, but the gesture & accompanying desperation were moot considerations, and actually gave John Tavares a chance to add a goal/point to his scoring totals.
The Penguins would ultimately lose 3-1, setting up a virtual do-or-die contest against the Tanktastic Buffalo Sabres to decide whether or not Pittsburgh would make the playoffs.
Needless to say...with the crowd booing the final effort, the "shirts off our back" giveaway for "Fan Appreciation Night" was certain to be contentious and awkward for all involved.