New York Islanders fans will turn on tonight’s game with a little more confidence after a poised victory in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s nothing to hang their hat on, as there’s plenty of work left to be done, but it makes that hill look a bit smaller. The team had their ups and downs and hope to dial in their play and reproduce their successes to put a strangle hold on this series. Here’s what went right in Game 1.
Energy in the Stands and on the Ice
In a post-game interview, Islanders’ goalie, Robin Lehner, and captain, Anders Lee, mentioned their amazement of the fans’ energy level throughout the game.
The Islanders used that energy to start the game the only way they know how – with the fourth line. As usual, that fourth line, consisting of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck, came out flying, hemming the Pittsburgh Penguins in their own end for nearly the entire first shift of the game. As that line came off the ice, Tom Kuhnhackl stepped on and (nearly) opened the scoring just 33 seconds into the game. The goal was overturned due to a coach’s challenge on an offside call with Martin still in the zone.
The Islanders didn’t wait long to get that back, though, as Jordan Eberle found the back of the net a little more than a minute later to go up one to nothing. The early lead allowed the Islanders to relax a little bit and settle into the game.
From there, the game went back and forth, something they were good at avoiding all season, but the Islanders managed to never play from behind. They mostly kept their composure against an experienced Penguins team that knows a thing or two about stepping up when it counts. If the Islanders – and the fans – can keep up the energy during game two from the very first shift of the game, they’ll continue to build momentum in this series.
The Islanders didn’t give up that many Grade-A chances, but Penguins’ forwards don’t need that many to opportunities to find the back of the net. Luckily, Lehner was up to the task, often playing well above the crease to cut down the angle and limit second and third chances. Overall, he looked confident in his first career playoff start. He game up big when called upon and continued his great play from the regular season.
A closer look shows that two of the goals were a product of things largely out of the Islanders’ control, which should give the team a lift heading into game two. The first goal against occurred after Cizikas blew a tire in the neutral zone, which gave Phil Kessel a lot of time and space to walk into the slot and shoot. The second goal came on the power play after Evgeni Malkin took a shot that deflected off of Adam Pelech’s left skate and past Lehner. Regardless of how they went in, the Islanders stayed the course and weren’t rattled, even as the Penguins tied it late in the game, according to Lehner.
“I don’t think there was any panic,’’ he said. “It was 3-2, there was two minutes left, or something, but it was a good play by them. They had a lot of traffic in front all night, they have some big guys there, and they shot it in the right spot. It was 3-3. There was not much to think about. We were calm in [the locker room during intermission], and we knew we were going to win this game.’’Colin Stephenson| Newsday
They’ll need to keep playing with energy – and without panic – to continue to suppress a potent Penguins’ offense in Game 2.
Striking on the Powerplay
A point of concern heading into the post-season, the Islanders took advantage of a weak Penguins penalty kill to go up 2-1 late in the first to and end the period up a goal. The Islanders will need to continue to capitalize on these chances, not only because it helps on the scoreboard in tight games, but because those types of goals are demoralizing for opponents and puts momentum in your favor. It’ll be important for the Islanders to continue to take advantage of these opportunities.
Playing with Poise
One of the more impressive parts of the Islanders’ victory on Wednesday night was that they didn’t force plays that weren’t there, even with emotions running high. They were patient with the puck, didn’t hesitate on chances, and played with structure in both the neutral and defensive zones.
This was put on display in overtime as Matt Barzal carried the puck over the Penguins’ blue line, cut to the middle, creating time and space, and drew down Matt Murray before shooting the puck. Josh Bailey, who started the play by chipping the puck out of his own end and into the neutral zone, followed the play up the ice and calmly chipped in the rebound.
The Islanders still have a huge mountain to climb, but they should be heading into Game 2 with the knowledge that they have what it takes to beat the Penguins. We’ll see if they do tonight.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.