The first two New York Islander playoff games of 2013 showed a young, inexperienced, nervous team play “the learning game.” While most people hate having to learn new things because it’s hard, it’s exhausting, you have to fall and sometimes be utterly embarrassed… like when I tried to learn to ice skate, drive, or use Turbo Tax… the Islanders took a harsh beating in game 1 and adjusted. Their playoff learning curve was fast and because of the character and confidence this team has developed this season, they return home with a 1-1 split of the first two games in Pittsburgh.
Game 1 Nightmare
Game 1 one was certainly terrible times. The Islanders let the nerves and the overwhelming intensity of the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins overtake them. The result was a worst case scenario embarassing 5-0 loss in game 1. The first game of the series, the first chance for many hockey fans to finally get a glimpse of this John Tavares and his Islanders who actually are a quality team finally, and they were demolished. Evgeni Nabokov took the brunt of the offensive storm the Penguins unleashed. A bullet of a shot wrang off his mask thanks to Jerome Inginla, and Nabokov was shaken. He let up four goals before the 2nd period was barely going and was pulled to rest, to find his game, and to protect him from a Pittsburgh team that was winning all the battles in front of him. John Tavares, the Islanders first superstar in ages, didn’t register a shot on goal. And aside from a few bursts, the game was all Pittsburgh. The game ended, and there was plenty of chatter that this would be a quick sweep for the Penguins.
This was not the 2013′s Islander’s game. This was a game where 12 players making their playoff debut found out how different the intensity and energy a Stanley Cup Playoff game feels. The Islanders, or any team making a run for the playoffs late in a season will talk about how those games are playoff games. They’re not. Playoffs is a different animal. The question now was, will the Islanders forget the terrible loss? And more importantly, did they learn from the loss?
Game 2. Yes. They learned something.
Well, not at first. Sidney Crosby returned to the line up, with a jaw guard. He’s been out for 6 weeks thanks to a broken jaw suffered against the Islanders. His return offset the loss of James Neal who hurt his ankle in game 1. Offset is not the right word, because adding a hungry Sidney Crosby to your line up is basically upgrading the team to a top contender level. The Penguins are already sure-fire contenders, so with Crosby, they’re just absurdly explosive.
The Islanders looked stronger right from the start. Their body language exuded some of that confidence and swagger they had during the regular season. However, the Penguins still proved that no matter how good you look, make any mistake and they will capitalize. They scored 2 quick goals. One belonging to Crosby. The Islanders earned a power play and the sign of learning was in the play. They looked poised. They didn’t panic. Down 2 goals fast didn’t seem to phase them. And the power play succeeded with well set up goal for Matt Moulson. They were on the board. Then, the Penguins flexed their muscle and Crosby scored again. Down 3-1 and still more than half of the first period to go, the Islanders didn’t panic. They worked.
The difference in this game was the work ethic for the Islanders was paramount. They finished hits. Won the battles on the board. It’s hard to say if Pittsburgh relaxed after going up 3-1. Maybe they subconsciously felt this was going to be another easy win, but either way the Islanders only stepped up the intensity.
Kyle Okposo, whom the franchise has been waiting to blossom really started to find his game this season. In Game 2 he found his identity. Okposo decided to stand up for a teammate by challenging Matt Niskanen to a fight. It was a true hockey fight. A bloody punch filled brawl. Okposo doesn’t normally fight, but this the was moment when he knew he needed to make a statement. The Islanders quickly scored after this. They continued to work hard and when things looked bleak… a 4 minute power play… Nabokov was brilliant. The game was won on a hard-working Okposo shift where he powered the puck towards Fleury, missing the next, but the force brought it back, and the Islanders got the fortuitous bounce they needed. They went ahead 4-3 and would hold on to win a playoff game on the road.
What happens now?
The Islanders won a game in Pittsburgh. They bounced back from a brutal loss. They were able to control the game and play their style of hockey. They know the Penguins are still mighty and full of veteran and super-skilled muscle. They too are learners. They are on quest to win the Stanley Cup and understand there will be losses. The Islanders will have to learn again at home. The Penguins team they face will have adjusted and will come out even stronger. This young Islander team now must realize you’re never done learning when it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Below is the fight that sparked the Islanders and helped lead them towards the win. They will need to find many more sparks like this if they hope to keep winning.