By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — At the rate the Pittsburgh Penguins are going, they may be able to let star captain Sidney Crosby take as long as he wants to heal from a broken jaw.
The Penguins, minus Crosby, got two goals from Pascal Dupuis while goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury turned aside 26 shots for the shutout as Pittsburgh rolled past the New York Islanders, 5-0, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
Game 2 is Friday in Pittsburgh as the Penguins lead the best-of-seven-series, 1-0.
“It’s just one win,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Regardless of how it comes and the nature of the win, I think it’s going to be a much different story in Game 2.”
Beau Bennett scored his first career playoff goal on the power play, and Kris Letang also had a power-play marker while Tanner Glass, who didn’t score his first regular-season goal as a Penguin until the team’s 41st game, also netted his first-ever playoff goal.
The lone blemish on what was otherwise a near-perfect night for the Penguins came after injuries to Jussi Jokinen and 40-goal scorer James Neal. Bylsma did not provide injury updates on either when asked.
“You want to manage the emotions, you want to come out with that intensity, but still under control and I thought we did that early and pretty much the full game,” said Penguins’ forward Jarome Iginla, who had two assists. “It was a good game for us.”
Fleury tied two-time Stanley Cup winner Tom Barrasso for a franchise record with his sixth career playoff shutout. It was his first playoff shutout since April 13, 2011, against Tampa Bay. Fleury, who tied for fourth in the league with 23 wins, has 43 postseason wins, more than any other goaltender in the league since 2008.
“It’s the playoffs…every game matters,” Fleury said. “It’s always nice to bring your best game.”
Fleury has been subject of much scrutiny despite backstopping the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. His defense hasn’t helped much at times either. But that wasn’t the case on Wednesday as Fleury was sharp and his defense was stout, unlike last year’s defensive meltdown in the opening round of the playoffs against Philadelphia.
“It must feel great for him,” Letang said. “I don’t think we should blame him for anything in the past. We were expecting him to be on top of his game and he proved that tonight.”
New York, with 16 playoff newcomers, looked more like a team making its first post-season appearance since 2007, as opposed to the club that lost just once in regulation in the season’s final three weeks.
Islanders’ goaltender Evgeni Nabokov led San Jose into the postseason regularly for almost a decade, but he was shaky against the Penguins, allowing four goals on just 15 shots.
Frustrations boiled over in the final minutes when Marty Reasoner was issued a five minute major and game misconduct for kneeing Jokinen. That set off a skirmish, which resulted in misconducts for three players from each team.
“They’re not going to be happy right now,” Iginla said. “Desperation only grows as the series goes on.”
Pittsburgh cruised to the Eastern Conference’s best record despite missing Crosby for the final month of the season with a broken jaw.
Crosby, who has been practicing with the team while wearing a protective shield, broke his jaw after he was struck by a deflected puck in a game against the Islanders on March 30.
Though Crosby feels he’s ready, doctors did not clear him to play in Game 1 after his last checkup Tuesday afternoon and there is no timetable for his return.
“I don’t know what the timeline is, but I hope he’s back next game,” Iginla said. “I know he’s close. The focus is just to keep playing well as a group.”
The Penguins closed the regular season winning 24 of their final 30 games, which included a historic 15-game romp through the month of March. They appear to be continuing the trend into the playoffs.
A frenzied, white-towel waving, standing-room only crowd at Consol Energy Center could also sense something special as the Penguins look to win their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history and first since 2009 when Crosby became the youngest captain in NHL history to win a championship.
The Penguins, in an attempt to erase the failures of the previous three postseasons, brought in Iginla, a future Hall of Famer, and distinguished veterans Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray without trading away a single player on the NHL roster.
Pittsburgh was upset in the second round by Montreal in 2010, then blew a 3-1 lead against Tampa Bay, though Crosby and Malkin were injured. Last season, Crosby and Malkin were healthy when cross-state rival Philadelphia embarrassed the undisciplined Penguins in six games.
Fleury and the Penguins got off to a good start this year.
The Penguins were awarded a power play just 1:40 into the game and Iginla rattled Nabokov with a cannonading blast from the point that struck the Islanders’ goaltender in the mask.
A shaken Nabokov remained in the game, but he was stunned again 25 seconds later when Bennett scored his first career playoff goal on the power play, taking a Malkin pass down the left boards and lifting a shot underneath the crossbar. The Penguins have scored at least one power play goal in eight of their last nine games.
Dupuis put the Penguins ahead by two goals later in the period with a backhander, getting the tip of his stick on the puck to finish off a furious net-mouth scramble that started with an Iginla shot.
Pittsburgh extended the two-goal lead to a 4-0 advantage, opening the second period with a pair of goals in 1:51.
The Penguins also started the second period with a power play that turned into a two-man advantage for 23 seconds when Reasoner was whistled for tripping.
Letang beat Nabokov, netting a power-play goal 1:19 into the period, and Dupuis followed it up 32 seconds later with his second of the game at even strength, sending the crowd into a frenzy when he dumped the rebound from a Mark Eaton shot behind a diving Nabokov.
That brought in Kevin Poulin, but he didn’t fare much better after Glass made it 5-0 later in the period.
“We’re certainly happy with jumping out to a lead and adding on early in the second period, but it’s just one win,” Bylsma said. “A big part of playoff hockey is refocusing and regrouping and getting back for the next game and we will be ready to do that in Game 2.”
NOTES: Dupuis is the first Penguins’ player to lead the league in plus-minus since Ron Francis in 1994-95, and Letang the first Pittsburgh defenseman to lead the league in scoring since Paul Coffey in 1989-90…Pittsburgh is 8-2 in its last 10 Game 1s at home… Since Crosby joined the Penguins, Pittsburgh is 22-4-2 at home against the Islanders…After losing the first game of the regular-season series against New York, the Penguins have outscored the Islanders, 21-5, winning five straight…It’s the first playoff meeting between the two teams since the 1993 Patrick Division finals, the last time the Islanders won a playoff series.