By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – Kyle Okposo picked the best time to give the No. 8 New York Islanders their first lead in a best-of-seven series against the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
Okposo netted the game-winner with 7:37 left in the third period as the Islanders weathered an early storm, and spoiled Sidney Crosby’s return from a broken jaw, rallying past the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Friday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
The series, now tied at 1, shifts back to Long Island for Game 3 set for noon on Sunday.
“It’s the playoffs and you lose games sometimes,” Crosby said. “I think we have to make sure we learn from this one pretty quickly. It’s not the way we want to play and we definitely have room to improve.”
The Penguins throttled New York, 5-0 in Game 1 without Crosby and the trend appeared to continue as Pittsburgh, buoyed by the return of its captain, jumped out to a 2-0 lead 3:19 into the game and extended the advantage to 3-1 four minutes later.
Crosby netted two goals, Evgeni Malkin registered a goal and an assist, and newly-acquired Jarome Iginla had two helpers, but the Islanders didn’t go away.
“The game was not indicative of how well they were playing,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “It looked too easy at that point in time and they were playing a much better game even though the score was 3-1.”
Matt Moulson, Colin McDonald, Matt Martin, and Okposo were the goal-scorers for the Islanders. Evgeni Nabokov, who allowed four goals on 15 shots in Game 1, made 30 saves on Friday.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who registered his sixth career playoff shutout in Game 1, stopped 38 of 42 shots.
“They had too many shots,” Iginla said. “We made it tough on (Fleury) tonight.”
Okposo’s game-winner bounced off the end boards, hit a sprawled Fleury in the back and rolled into the net.
Pittsburgh, despite having Crosby for the first time in 13 games, and the firepower it acquired at the trade deadline, couldn’t tie it as the Islanders bottled up the high-powered Penguins in their own zone for most of the third. The Penguins, with the game tied at 3, also couldn’t cash in on a four-minute double minor to John Tavares for high sticking Brenden Morrow. Nabokov came up big on the penalty kill, denying Crosby with successive saves from the top of the crease.
“We know we didn’t play the way we needed to,” Crosby said. “They got a few bounces, but they worked for them. We didn’t feel like we did enough to deserve that one.”
Crosby has made an immediate impact when he’s returned from injury in the past and the Islanders are well aware.
Crosby enjoyed an unforgettable comeback from a career-threatening concussion in November 2011, making a spectacular season debut in dramatic fashion when he scored two goals and two assists during a dominating 5-0 victory against the Islanders.
This time, Crosby missed more than a month recovering from a broken jaw, suffered March 30 when he took a deflected puck to the face against the Islanders. Crosby, who led the NHL scoring race by a wide margin at the time of his injury, received medical clearance to play Thursday afternoon and wore a protective plastic face shield Friday, while skating with regular linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.
“I think there was definitely a little bit of rust, but there’s not a lot of time, so we have to find a way to create things and get better,” Crosby said.
A loud ovation went up when Crosby came out of the tunnel for pre-game warm-ups and the building turned electric when the Penguins’ captain touched the ice prior to the opening faceoff.
The standing-room-only crowd rose to its feet again at 18:37 of the first period, waving white playoff towels and giving Crosby another earsplitting ovation when he took the ice for the first time since his injury.
It didn’t take long for Crosby to deliver.
“I thought he didn’t miss a beat,” Bylsma said. “He skated well, he was on pucks, he was good in the faceoff circle, and in addition to his two goals, he had a couple other dangerous situations.”
The Penguins’ captain needed just 7:22 to score his first two goals of the playoffs, netting the first 3:19 into the game and following that up with his second just four minutes later.
The first came after Iginla pushed the carom of Malkin’s missed slap shot across the crease to Crosby, who tapped his first of the playoffs into an empty net.
Crosby’s second came just 18 seconds after the Islanders scored a power-play goal to cut the Penguins’ early lead to 2-1. Crosby, after circling behind the net, roofed the rebound from a Dupuis shot past Nabokov from behind the goal-line to make it 3-1.
“Both goals were big for our team, especially the second one right after they scored,” Iginla said. “We were in good shape.”
The Penguins, who cruised to a remarkably easy Game 1 victory, came out with the same intensity in Game 2, lifted in part by Crosby’s return.
Malkin used the pre-game energy to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead just 43 seconds into the game, the fastest to start a game since Crosby scored 15 seconds into the first period last year against Philadelphia.
Malkin, after taking a pass from Iginla, put a shot on goal and jabbed his own rebound past Nabokov, giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead.
But the Islanders, despite a pair of two-goal deficits, continued to press.
“We were in control, but their desperation went up,” Iginla said. “We didn’t match that desperation as it went on.”
Moulson netted New York’s first goal of the series on the power play at 12:56 of the first period, his cross-crease pass hitting off Penguins’ defenseman Paul Martin and rolling behind Fleury.
McDonald cut the Penguins’ lead to 3-2 at 14:48 of the second period with a wraparound that bounced over Fleury’s left pad and into the net.
Matt Martin’s goal at 9:23 of the second tied the game at 3. Josh Bailey’s initial shot missed the net, but Martin beat a Penguins’ defender to the rebound, putting the puck behind Fleury along the near post.
Okposo changed the dynamic of the series with the lone goal of the third.
“They kept coming and playing well,” Bylsma said. “We were prepared for a seven-game grind of a series, and now we’re in one.”
NOTES: Crosby, with 77 points in 42 games, has more points against the Islanders than any other opponent… Crosby’s 35 career playoff goals rank fourth in team playoff history, while Malkin is two back in fifth with 33…James Neal, a 40-goal scorer, and defenseman Brooks Orpik missed the game with lower body injuries…The Penguins tied a team record with a power play goal in their seventh straight playoff game… The Penguins lost a Game 2 for the fourth straight time… Pittsburgh allowed 40-plus shots in a playoff game since a Game 5 triple-overtime defeat against Ottawa in 2009.