The New York Islanders headed to Pittsburgh for the first two games of their first-round matchup and are now headed home to the Nassau Coliseum, having taken a game on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sidney Crosby and co. have been a bit unhealthy missing co-star center Evgeni Malkin and backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, while the Islanders remain without their captain, Anders Lee. Going into this series, the tale of the tape reads goaltending and defense as a strength for the Islanders and offense as a strength for the Penguins. Through two games played, that has held up thus far, with a few blips on both sides.
It was a surprise when Ilya Sorokin led the Islanders out in Game 1 in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon for his NHL playoffs debut, and Semyon Varlamov wouldn’t dress with an ailment. However, Sorokin was up for the challenge and helped the Islanders steal a game on the road.
“His personality, he’s as level-headed of a goaltender you’re going to meet,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “He had a smile on his face when I told him and said, ‘I’ll be ready coach.’”
Sorokin made 39 saves on 42 shots, including some timely, athletic saves that left some Penguins players looking to the sky.
“I thought he was really sharp on a power play late in the second period,” Trotz said. “We had to get through that. If we don’t get through that, we’re not sitting here winning the first game. That would’ve been a tough hill to climb.”
The Penguins put themselves in the lead in the second period, on a neat one-handed deflection by Crosby. Sorokin battled hard, however, as the Penguins could have netted a few more goals that period, further proving to be a viable option in net during Varlamov’s absence and creating the possibility to maintain the Islanders net even when the veteran netminder becomes healthy.
The Islanders’ third line consisting of Kyle Palmieri, J.G. Pageau, and Oliver Wahlstrom was a force to be reckoned with. Combining for six points, they were single handily the Islanders x-factor in Game 1 in Pittsburgh.
Kyle Palmieri netted a pair of goals, including the first goal of the series, and the game-winner in overtime, to take the first matchup of the series.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time,” Palmieri said. “The opportunity to be in these playoffs is something I don’t take for granted. It’s hard to get here and we came on the road with a mission and we were able to go out there and find a way to win.”
Pageau was a menace on the ice all night, with three points (one goal, two assists) and without the puck, continuously hounding Penguins skaters on the forecheck.
“I was aiming five-hole but it came up on me,” Pageau said with a smile. “I was shooting it as hard as I could.”
Going into Game 2, the Islanders gave themselves an advantage moving forward in their first-round matchup, and they knew their Game 1 victory was nothing to celebrate.
“It’s just important in any series to focus on one game at a time,” veteran forward Matt Martin said. “It’s a race to four [wins] and we did a good job picking up the first game. Our next job is to make it a 2-0 series. We know it’s going to be tough, they’re a good hockey team… we have to be at our best.”
Varlamov returned to health, and the lineup Tuesday night, leading the Islanders out on the ice for warm-ups, despite a stellar performance from Sorokin in Game 1. He got off to a rough start, allowing a goal he’ll likely see in his nightmares against Bryan Rust to open Game 2.
“He just missed the puck,” Trotz said. “I thought he was excellent after the first goal. I thought he was moving well, he was crisp. We just wanted the first goal back.”
A lapse in Ryan Pulock’s play created a turnover in the offensive zone that led to the Penguins’ first goal, and whereas Varlamov buckled down after that, the defense didn’t follow suit. Just about 10 minutes later, Pulock missed his assignment in the slot, and Jeff Carter padded the Penguins lead to 2-0.
“There were some plays we went brain-dead a little bit,” Trotz said. “Some simple plays that we didn’t execute and we spent more time in our zone because of it.”
An uncharacteristic first period for the Islanders’ top-pairing defenseman saw the Penguins hold a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
The Islanders got back to their Trotz structure in the second period, where they normally struggle to maintain their consistency. A goal by Islanders’ veteran Josh Bailey cut the Penguins lead 2-1 with just over five minutes to go.
The referees swallowed the whistles in the third period as things got chippy. Coming down to the final minutes, Rust closed his hand on a puck sending the Islanders to the power play with 1:28 to play. However, the Isles’ power play continues to haunt them, and they couldn’t convert during the 6-on-4 opportunity, sealing Game 2 for the Penguins.
Despite a mixed bag in performance and a lack of a true 60-minute effort in both games, the Islanders got the job done in Pittsburgh. Stealing a game and keeping themselves in contention regardless of some poor play, the Islanders now have the advantage of returning to the Coliseum. They will play the next two, and possibly three of the next five games at the barn, where they went 21-4-3 in the 2020-21 season. They just need to win out at home to advance to the second round of the playoffs, something Trotz and co. are used to after collecting 45 points in 28 games on home ice.
At home, the Isles have scored 3.43 goals-for while only allowing an even 2.00 goals-against. Varlamov is a stellar 12-3-3 on home ice, with a .937 save percentage (SV%) and 1.87 goals-against average (GAA), while Sorokin sports a 9-1-0 record, maintaining a .918 SV% and 2.17 GAA. Taking advantage of a lesser Penguins goaltending situation that allowed an NHL sixth-worst 3.36 goals against per game will be important while sticking to the Trotz system and bottling up their NHL third-best 3.32 goals for per game in the 2020-21 season.
The capacity for the Penguins increased in Game 2 to about 9,000 fans, and now returning to Long Island, the capacity will increase there as well, holding about 7,200 fans. Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield was asked about the crowd at PPG Paints Arena following Tuesday night’s contest.
“It just makes me excited to get back to the Coli,” he said. (from ‘Five things the Islanders need to do to regain control vs. the Penguins’, The Athletic, 05/19/2021)
Mathew Barzal and the first line will need to find their game, as they’ve been non-factors thus far, however, the Islanders middle-six has been dangerous, and Trotz is still rolling all four lines as one of their strengths. With the added factor of additional fans at the Coliseum, it’s advantage Islanders moving forward in the first round, as long as they stick to their system and control the pace against the Penguins.
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James is a THW New York Islanders writer and podcast host of Nassaumen Hockey Podcast. A trusted source for Islanders content for many years at THW, James is passionate about keeping Islander fans up to date on the latest in Islanders news. Other content contributions also include his Co-Editor-in-Chief status for NYIslesBlog.com. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow James on Twitter.