Despite the results of Tuesday night's game and the Penguins being the top-seed in the Eastern Conference, I was expecting this series to be somewhat competitive. The first game may have been a dud, but last night delivered a little more of what I was expecting to see from this series. The Islanders have been one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference at controlling puck-possession at even strength and this was on full display last night as they really took it to the Penguins. They outshot them 36-23 during even strength play, had a huge advantage in five-on-five shot attempts and outplayed them in just about every area except for special teams.
The Isles had a territorial advantage in Game One, too but they weren't creating much offense out of any of their zone time. This changed completely last night.as the Isles were able to test Marc-Andre Fleury a lot more. They were still shooting from the outside a lot, but I noticed their transition game was much stronger and they did a much better job of getting to rebounds, which resulted in a few more chances and some lucky bounces to go with it.
Luck is probably the main reason why the Isles were able to tie this series tonight even though they were the better even strength team. They were trailing 3-1 at the first intermission and were able to tie the game thanks to some fortuitous bounces and a couple of soft goals in their favor. Three out of the four goals they scored weren't scoring chances and the only one that did qualify came after Matt Martin banged in a puck that took a weird carom off the end boards. You could make the argument that the Islanders created their own luck and would have scored eventually with how much they were outplaying the Penguins, but it's still hard to deny that they got some breaks there. Sometimes this is all you need, though and it could help the Islanders extend this series.
Let's remember that the Islanders are not a bad team and are capable of giving the Penguins a fair run for their money in a seven-game series with the talented group of forwards they have. Pittsburgh has more top-end talent on their roster, but they still can't afford to play the Islanders lightly and get outshot as badly as they did last night. Both teams are going to need to tighten up a bit defensively, though. The Penguins are a lot better than what they showed in Game Two and Evgeni Nabokov stability in net is just as questionable as Fleury's, so I see this series as one that can go either way despite Pittsburgh's bad underlying numbers.
New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins Game Two
The Islanders topped their total scoring chance count in Game One in the first period alone but came away with only one goal to show for it while the Pens converted on three of their's. It was probably frustrating to watch for an Isles fan because they did a lot of great things in that first period and were more focused on simply getting the puck on net instead of setting up fancy plays in the slot. It didn't pay off for them in the first 20 minutes, but they kept going with this strategy and they got a few very generous bounces in the second & third periods.
Colin McDonald scored a fluke wrap-around goal in the second period, Matt Martin was in the right place at the right time to bang home a rebound off the end boards to tie the game in the second period and Fleury knocked the puck into his own net to give the Islanders the lead. Jack Capuano pointed to Kyle Okposo's fight with matt Niskanen as what changed the game, but the Isles had the upper-hand for the majority of this game and got a couple of gifts that helped them even the score.
The Pens may have been able to steal this one had it not been for the fluky goals. Yes, New York won the scoring chance battle at even strength but the Islanders were playing with fire against Pittsburgh's powerplay and Nabokov had to come up big a few times in the second and third period to keep his team in the game. Nabby definitely settled in nicely after a horrific performance in Game One and a bad start in this game, as well. That being said, he is still a question mark in goal but so is Fleury so we'll see how this matchup shakes out.
Islanders Individual Scoring Chances
Best EV Forwards: Josh Bailey & Brad Boyes +8
Worst EV Forwards: Matt Martin & Casey Cizikas -4
Best EV Defenseman: Mark Streit +3
Worst EV Defenseman: Travis Hamonic EVEN
Josh Bailey was promoted to the first line in place of Matt Moulson and this decision really paid off for the Islanders as their top line absolutely crushed the Penguins at even strength. Bailey in particular had a very strong game and Tavares was excellent after a quiet performance in Game 1. Boyes was also terrific and contributed to three of the Islanders scoring chances. He was one player in particular who was doing a great job of getting to the areas in front of Fleury to create chances and he also helped create space for his linemates, which helped them have a fantastic game all-around.
Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic both had very strong games, as well despite not having the most impressive stat-lines. They were given the task of shutting down both Malkin & Crosby's lines and only gave up four scoring chances as a unit. MacDonald in particular was very impressive and he really made things tough for Pittsburgh's forwards by not allowing them to have much space once they entered the zone. He was also very good on the penalty kill. Lubomir Visnovsky & Brian Strait also played a lot of minutes against Malkin's line and were able to keep them in check at even strength.
The one major flaw with the Islanders play was that their depth forwards got their teeth kicked in. McDonald & Martin scored two of the Islanders goals but the one Martin scored was the only Islander chance which he was on the ice for in the entire game and McDonald's goal wasn't even a chance. Capuano was content with sending these players out against the likes of Malkin & Crosby, so it's not terribly surprising to see them have bad numbers, but I would hope for the Isles sake that their matchups change at home. This was a problem in Game One and I can see it escalating as the series gets longer.
Penguins Individual Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Chris Kunitz +3
Worst EV Forwards: Brandon Sutter, Brenden Morrow & Matt Cooke -5
Best EV Defenseman: Deryk Engelland +2
Worst EV Defenseman: Kris Letang -4
Most of Pittsburgh's big guns did their damage on the power play with Evgeni Malkin being one of the few players to come away a positive at even strength. Malkin & Crosby were basically half of Pittsburgh's offense, recording a combined 18 shots, 13 combined scoring chances and being on the ice for 20 of Pittsburgh's 23 five-on-five shots on goal. Depth is something that's supposed to be one of Pittsburgh's strong suits but that wasn't the case last night since Crosby & Malkin had to carry the team. Kunitz and Dupuis chipped in with a couple of chances, but Pittsburgh's two stars were still doing the bulk of the work.
Pittsburgh's depth really let them down last night. Bylsma is usually content with letting Brandon Sutter handle the other team's number one center but he was performing so poorly that Bylsma eventually decided to put Crosby out against Tavares instead. Morrow and Cooke also had awful performances and it made Pittsburgh's tough-minutes line practically uselss. I'm sure Tavares's line had a lot to do with it, though since those three were in high-gear for most of the game. They also did quite a bit of damage to Pittsburgh's blue-line, as Letang, Martin & Eaton had issues containing them.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
This wasn't a good game for former Carolina Hurricanes. Sutter got eaten alive by Tavares' line and Jussi Jokinen also had a very poor showing. You can slo see here how much damage the Tavares line was able to do against some of Pittsburgh's top defenders, especially Letang. I'm kind of confused as to why he is playing with Mark Eaton, though since i feel that kind of limits how good he can be. I'm sure the Isles won't mind if it continues, though since they were able to win that matchup, and on the road nonetheless.