PITTSBURGH — The New York Islanders’ turnaround season is heading to the second round of the playoffs.
Jordan Eberle scored for the fourth straight game, Robin Lehner stopped 32 shots and the Islanders finished off Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins with a clinical 3-1 win in Game 4 on Tuesday night to pull off a stunning sweep.
Josh Bailey set up Brock Nelson’s go-ahead goal late in the first period and added an empty-net score with 38 seconds remaining as the Islanders easily captured the franchise’s second playoff series victory in 26 years.
The Islanders trailed for less than five minutes across four games against the Penguins, whose 13th straight post-season appearance ended quietly. Pittsburgh managed just six goals in the series, including Jake Guentzel’s first of the post-season 35 seconds into the game.
It wasn’t nearly enough to stop the Islanders. New York allowed the fewest goals in the league during the regular season, and then backed it up with 12-plus periods of sound hockey that’s quickly become their calling card under first-year coach Barry Trotz, who led the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup last season.
The Penguins did their best to stay loose while trying to avoid getting swept in the first round for the second time in franchise history. Typically buttoned-down coach Mike Sullivan cracked a joke after Tuesday’s morning skate and did little to tinker with his lineup, adamant Pittsburgh could pick itself up off the mat if it got back to — as Sullivan so often puts it — “playing the right way.”
The team that began the playoffs with hopes of capturing its third Stanley Cup in four years looked ready to bounce back. For a couple of minutes anyway.
Guentzel found space in the slot and ripped a shot past Lehner 35 seconds into the game for the first goal of the series by Pittsburgh’s top line. The 574th consecutive home sellout crowd buzzed. The Penguins had the momentum and the lead.
Just as they did at every critical point during what became a lopsided series, the Islanders responded almost immediately.
Penguins defenceman Kris Letang whiffed while trying to pinch into the New York zone, creating a 2-on-1 the other way that Eberle finished to even it at 1 just 1:34 after Guentzel had put Pittsburgh in front.
The goal seemed to steady the Islanders, who settled in and kept it simple. New York posted the franchise’s best regular-season record in 35 years by limiting chances and relying heavily on Trotz’s system that preaches pragmatism and patience.
The Islanders weathered Pittsburgh’s early push and went ahead with 1:54 to go in the first period when Nelson slipped behind Penguins forward Garrett Wilson and darted to the net. Bailey’s pass from the below the goal line arrived right as Nelson flashed in front of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray. Nelson flicked a shot over Murray’s right pad, and New York was back in control.
Another stellar defensive effort and a little bit of puck luck helped. Crosby hit the inside of the left post in the middle of the second period, and Islanders defenceman Scott Mayfield bailed out Lehner by making a save with his left leg on a point-blank shot by Phil Kessel early in the third.
And that was it. When Bailey’s flip went the length of the ice and into the empty net, the Islanders’ bench erupted and the Penguins trudged toward an off-season that could lead to significant changes.
NOTES: Crosby’s assist on Guentzel’s goal moved him past Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman and into 10th place on the NHL’s all-time playoff points list (186). … Pittsburgh went 0 for 3 on the power play and finished 1 for 11 in the series with the man advantage. … The Islanders were 0 for 3 on the power play. … Lehner stopped 135 of the 141 shots he faced in the series. … Murray finished with 23 saves.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press