Pittsburgh Penguins Edged Out by New York Islanders

Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) handles the puck against New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen (51) during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) handles the puck against New York Islanders center Frans Nielsen (51) during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders are fairly evenly matched, separated by a narrow gap in the playoff picture. Tonight, the Isles dropped the Pens 2-1 in a tight game.

Coming into this evening’s game, the New York Islanders sat three points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern playoff picture. With such close standings, every point is important for the Pens to pick up.

Tonight was the first time the Penguins visited the Isles in their new arena in Brooklyn. Rumors recently surfaced that the Islanders were looking to move again after only coming to Barclays Center at the start of this season. Apparently they have a good reason – Ian Cole described the arena as “emo” today.

It was also an “emo” game, but more in the sense of the unabridged word. Emotions were high and tempers flared as both teams recognized just how much this game meant.

A little over a minute in, Phil Kessel had a great chance on Jaroslav Halak, followed up by Bryan Rust a minute later. Neither could convert, though, and the Islanders had several opportunities at the other end. As the first period flew by, the Isles had the momentum, outplaying and outshooting the Penguins.

The Pens, whose speed is one of their biggest assets, were missing one of their fastest skaters in Carl Hagelin tonight. The Isles took advantage and continually tried to escalate the pace. Their fourth line, consisting of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck, were frustrating the Penguins’ defense.

Midway through the first, Patric Hornqvist was called for a hooking penalty. On the man advantage Islanders captain John Tavares put the puck in the net.

Not to fear, though: Evgeni Malkin‘s perpetual animosity against the Islanders reared its head moments later. Malkin and New York bruiser Travis Hamonic got into a battle, both receiving roughing minors. On the 4-on-4, Kris Letang evened things up with an assist from Sidney Crosby.

With that goal, Letang now has 11 points in his last 11 games. He has also achieved a career high in goals, with 12 on the season.

After Hamonic was freed from the box, he seemed to make it his personal mission to antagonize every member of the Penguins. He proceeded to shove Chris Kunitz around in front of the Isles’ net and trip up Scott Wilson. Shortly thereafter Cizikas and Clutterbuck tried to take on Tom Sestito at the same time, which the refs stopped before it could get nasty.

The Islanders came out swinging, but the Penguins stole their momentum and ran with it after the Malkin scrum. The first period was physical, as expected, but the Penguins were out-hit 11 to 6.

Kessel had some great chances throughout the game but all of his shots went just wide of the net. Despite his missed connections the Pens came out with guns blazing in the second period. They sustained pressure in the Islanders’ end and were more in sync with each other than they had been in the first.

180 feet away, Marc-Andre Fleury was having a strong game too. At one point, Tavares picked off the puck and soared down the ice toward Fleury, but couldn’t find twine. During the occasional onslaughts of shots, “The Flower” stood tall.

Atoning for his penalty earlier, Hornqvist drew a penalty as Nick Leddy crosschecked him. At home, the Islanders are strong penalty killers and took care of the Leddy penalty easily.

Crosby was playing a heck of a game, creating good chances, stripping the puck from Islanders, and never slowing down. Letang was also on fire, shutting down Tavares and other New York forwards repeatedly. Despite their efforts, the teams ended the second period just as it began, deadlocked in a 1-1 tie.

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If it wasn’t for Halak, though, the Penguins would have been far ahead. The Pens were out to win tonight, and despite the even score they had outplayed the Isles ever since Malkin grappled with Hamonic.

After a few opportunities for the Isles, Kessel took a penalty behind his own goal. He slashed the stick out of power forward Kyle Okposo‘s hands and went off to the sin bin. Despite the strong pressure by Anders Lee almost on top of Fleury, the goaltender made some great saves and kept the puck out.

(Quick Lee-related digression: this is both one of my favorite videos and worst nightmares. Did you watch it? Did you laugh through your secondhand embarrassment? Great. Back to the game.)

Speaking of Lee, he took a seat in his respective penalty box near the end of the Kessel penalty, also for slashing. Indignant as blood dripped down his chin, Lee had no choice but to sit and watch the Penguins pressure his team.

Matt Cullen was the next player to take a seat in the sin bin for crosschecking Ryan Pulock. Leddy, a defenseman acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks a few seasons ago, converted on the powerplay and put the Islanders ahead again. Fleury had been screened and couldn’t see that Leddy was shooting from the slot; the puck bounced off Fleury’s glove and trickled in the net.

Hamonic continued his inflammatory evening by drawing a roughing penalty against Ian Cole. It was killed, but again the Penguins spent too much time in the box.

Long story short: if these teams happen to meet in the playoffs, the Penguins cannot take unnecessary penalties because the Islanders will convert. It might be a fairly low-scoring round, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be interesting and highly contentious.

As the clock ticked down, Malkin was high-sticked by Okposo and put the Penguins on the advantage. Moments later, Halak left the game with what looked to be a groin injury. Former Penguin Thomas Greiss came into the game cold with under five minutes remaining.

Despite the combined advantages, the Penguins just couldn’t make it happen. They dropped the game 2-1 and the Islanders widened the gap between the teams. Luckily, the Columbus Blue Jackets felled the Detroit Red Wings tonight so the Penguins hold the first wildcard spot for the time being.

The two teams were fairly evenly matched tonight. Both had some players who just turned on the gas and gave it their all; both had some who were a little less than effective but not too bad. Going forward, the Pens just need to improve the accuracy of their shots on goal – and, at risk of sounding like a broken record – their physicality.

The Penguins next play on Friday in Columbus – a game I’ll be at, and hopefully a rebound.