I don't know if the New York Islanders are angels, but they drew seven powerplays for the second consecutive game. Unlike Sunday against the Devils though, on this night they generated all kinds of opportunities with the extra man, frustratingly coming up short on 16 shots at 5-on-4.
The Penguins penalty kill did a good job of clearing rebounds or interfering with Isles forwards to prevent them reaching rebounds. Despite their arsenal of shots, the Isles probably passed up some better opportunities as frustration mounted and the PP approached 14 consecutive opportunities without a goal.
The game had an odd flow to it, as the closer the Isles got, the more it felt like the game was slipping away.
They conceded the first goal quite early, with James Neal converting quickly on a Penguins powerplay just three minutes into the game. An early conversion by John Tavares was lost to the ether because the officials blew the whistle early, mistakenly thinking Fleury had it covered.
After the Isles powerplays spent the better part of the first two periods trying to equalize, Evgeni Nabokov let in a softy on a Simon Despres one-timer from distance with four minutes left in the second. By the second intermission they'd outshot the Penguins 24-12 but were down 2-0.
Two minutes into the third it looked like it was over, with the Penguins opening up a 3-0 lead after a Thomas Hickey pinch left Matt Carkner defending a 3-on-1, Brandon Sutter snapping it through Nabokov's arm.
But lo and behold, the Isles luck finally changed just two minutes later. Goals by Michael Grabner and Brad Boyes just 35 seconds apart off of broken plays made it a game again. The rest of the third entertained, before Pascal Dupuis finished it with an empty net goal.
The Islanders are back to .500.
Bullets for Bullets' Sake
With the Islanders pressing in the second, Matt Martin had a fine ol' opportunity with the net agape, but Fleury did one of those Hasekian pinwheel maneuvers and got what looked to be a glove on the puck as Martin tried to shoot high.
I'm really not worried by the powerplay tonight. Wasn't stellar of course, but it generated shots. That's how these things go: Last week when they were winning they were getting only two opportunities and scoring on both (Pittsburgh), or four opportunities and scoring on three (New Jersey). This week they're getting seven per game and coming up empty.
On the other hand, the Islanders were better at even strength tonight -- at least by shots and goals scored -- but I'm not convinced of progress there. Having four lines to role that aren't held back by an enforcer probably helps. But in the early going they still traded rushes with the Penguins more than I'd like when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are leading rushes on the other side.
So let's see, Chris Kunitz went cannonballing into the back of Matt Martin's legs in the first period, then lowbridged Andrew MacDonald in the third well after MacDonald released the puck. He proclaimed innocence on both plays. Bad skater, or careless dirtbag?
You wonder how MacDonald will be doing tomorrow. He did return and took multiple shifts after the Kunitz play, but he looked like his knee took a bad one. Michael Grabner too took some bumps, looking hurt several times at the end of shifts.
Know what would've been a great way to avenge Kunitz's careless play on AMac? Scoring on the ensuing powerplay to tie the game.
MacDonald played a more humane 24 minutes tonight. It was Mark Streit, with all that powerplay time, who logged 29:01.
One more thing on MacDonald: He made an excellent, and quite possibly illegal, play when he swept the puck off the goal line with his hand. Overhead camera was inconclusive on whether he crossed from "shoving" to "covering" the puck as he saved that goal. The ref on hand was sure it was neither a goal nor a penalty.
Some hay will be made of the smattering of cheers when Sidney Crosby left the ice after taking a puck to the face. But you know why that happens? Of course you do. 'Cause the guy takes a legal hit from Colin McDonald and acts like he's untouchable. No rational person questions the talent and skill; they do tire of the whining (which has probably gotten better, but reputations stick) and overwhelming appearance of entitlement.
Brian Strait took a regrettable penalty, but overall I like his decision-making and handling of the puck. Nearly sprung a few good stretch-pass opportunities tonight too.
Wing Swap: Based on one night that featured a full 20 minutes of special teams time, I'd say the switch of Brad Boyes and Kyle Okposo was a qualified success. It's going to be tougher for John Tavares if both Boyes and Matt Moulson are playing the more passive sniper roles, but Boyes has some passing and possession skills that might help them get by. More importantly, Okposo looked a little more alive upon his reunion with Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner. Not great, but alive.
So this is where we are: The Devils beat the Rangers in regulation tonight, so the Penguins and Devils have created some separation at the top while the Isles are a point ahead of the Rangers. (The Flyers, bringing up the Atlantic rear, won tonight to get up to six points.) The Isles also have one fewer regulation losses than the Smurfs. The two teams meet Thursday at the Garden, then again a week later.
Tensions were high tonight, bitter feelings constantly near the surface as the Isles came back but fell short against the division's best team. Now we're worried about the next Atlantic rival around the corner. This season and its stakes are in full swing.
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