Going into this series, I had a feeling that goaltending was going to be a deciding factor and by that, I meant that the team who got slightly better goaltending would be the one who advanced. The Penguins had a decisive edge in this department based on their regular season numbers but after Marc-Andre Fleury experienced yet another playoff meltdown, their goaltending in this series was about on par with the Islanders and that isn't a good thing. To make matters worse, the Pens had been grossly outplayed in two out of three games so the margin for error became increasingly slim as the series went on and Fleury's terrible play was magnified. It got to the point where Pittsburgh needed their goaltender to help them persevere through stretches of bad play and possibly steal a game or two for them if needed. Fleury wasn't capable of doing that this series but fortunately for the Penguins, have a very capable "back-up" goaltender in Tomas Vokoun who they can go to when Fleury has a rough patch. Bylsma wisely elected to start him in Game Five and it paid off tremendously.
The Penguins have been getting outplayed for the better part of this series and they looked very sluggish to begin Game Five. The Islanders game planned for them well and completely shut down Pittsburgh's forecheck for the first 20 minutes. They also forced a lot of neutral zone turnovers to create rushes the other way and it really helped them establish a territorial advantage to take the crowd out of the game early. While this was a good road start, the one downside of the first period for the Islanders is that they didn't score and this is where the play of Vokoun played such a huge factor. It's unfair to say that Fleury wouldn't have been able to do the same thing but the Penguins being able to get the saves they need & escape the first period with no score was a big deal.
After that first period, Pittsburgh could regroup a little bit and they opened the floodgates in the next two periods. They outchanced the Islanders 15-8 in the final 40 minutes of the game after recording only two in the entire first period and were able to coast their way to a 4-0 win. The Penguins gave Vokoun plenty of goal support and played a good defensive game towards the end but he was the main reason they survived that first period and it gave his team a chance to regroup. Again, I don't think it's fair to say that Fleury wouldn't have been able to do the same, but Pittsburgh has desperately needed good goaltending for the last four games and they got that from Vokoun.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh was not good in the first 20 minutes and most of it was due to the Islanders executing a solid defensive scheme to clog them up in the neutral zone. The only time the Pens were able to create chances was by chipping the puck in and hoping they could beat the Islanders to them and win battles along the boards. They were also way too deliberate with their passes through the center of the ice and the Islanders were able to create transition chances out of that. Fortunately for them, the Vokoun came up big when he needed to and the Islanders followed it by having a nightmare of a second period.
Yes, the Isles only got outchanced by three but the Penguins offense woke up and they were able to solve the Islanders defensive scheme by either catching the Islanders on bad changes or using long, breakout passes to get through it. It's also worth mentioning that the Islanders goaltending has been miserable all series long and it continued last night as Nabokov allowed four goals on 27 shots, one of which not even being a scoring chance. Fleury has been able to mask a lot of the Islanders goaltending flaws since he has been almost as bad and that's why the Pens going to Vokoun could be what ends up being the deciding factor in this series. The Islanders have a chance if they can play like they did in the first period for a full-60 minutes but even then the margin for error for Nabokov is slim.
Islanders Individual Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Keith Aucoin +3
Worst EV Forward: Frans Nielsen -4
Best EV Defenseman: Brian Strait +3
Worst EV Defenseman: Mark Streit -3
The Moulson-Nielsen-Okposo line had their worst game of the series and to make matters worse, Nielsen had to leave the game with an injury sometime during the third period. One thing this line had done so well for the entire series was keeping the puck in the Penguins zone while providing a fair amount of offense but they were the opposite of that last night. They were simply dominated and were basically a non-factor whenever they were used at even strength. That being said, this line is going to be very important in Game Six since they will likely be matched up against Crosby or Malkin & they will need to play better if the Islanders want to stay alive.
While that line was held quiet at even strength, the Islanders third line was still able to provide secondary offense to compliment Tavares' line. McDonald, Grabner & Aucoin were probably the Islanders best players in that first period as they were forcing a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone and created three of the team's scoring chances. They also played quite a few shifts against Malkin's line so they had some heavy lifting to do.
The Islanders defense lost a big piece in Andrew MacDonald in Game Four and had to rely on Brian Strait to tkae over his role last night. In terms of possession, these two were dominated but they ended up playing much better if you go by scoring chances. Most of the damage done by Crosby & Malkin's lines came when they were out against Visnovsky/Hickey or Streit/Martinek and both of those pairings had terrible mistakes on the Crosby & Kennedy goals respectively. Visnovsky has been very good for most of this series but he was crushed by the Malkin line last night and really struggled to keep the puck out of his own end. He is a big part of why the Islanders have been a good territorial team this year, so he clearly has to play better in Game Six, but the Isles bottom-four was pretty bad as a whole.
Penguins Individual Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Evgeni Malkin +4
Worst EV Forward: Tyler Kennedy -3
Best EV Defenseman: Kris Letang +3
Worst EV Defenseman: Brooks Orpik -3
Bylsma switched things up after the first period by putting Iginla with Crosby and bumping Kunitz down to Malkin's line, both moves seemed to work well. Crosby's line had a rough first period but they were mcuh more active offensively after Iginla was placed there and Malkin's line was pretty consistent throughout the entire game. They produced only one even strength goal, but were also responsible for the majority of the Penguins offense by creating six scoring chances.
The Malkin line played well but Pittsburgh's shining star last night was on defense as Kris Letang completely shut down the Nielsen line and was a key part in Pittsburgh's territorial domination in the final two periods. He also added a power play goal for good measure. As a whole, Pittsburgh's defense corps has been getting roughed up for most of this series but Letang has been one of the few players to look strong in most of the games and last night was easily his best performance of the series. I would praise him a little more if Bylsma matched him up with the Tavares line, but he actually gave that assignment to Brooks Orpik & Paul Martin and neither of those two were exactly spectacular last night. They did enough to keep that line in check, though.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
Bylsma focused on keeping Brandon Sutter's line out against Tavares and I think he may have been better off going power-vs-power because Tavares struggled more against Pittsburgh's top-six than anyone else, which is interesting because the McDonald line actually outchanced both Crosby & Malkin. This is the only forward matchup that went the Islanders way, though because Nielsen's line was crushed by Pittsburgh's top-six.
On defense, Hamonic & Strrait actually did a respectable job at limiting Crosby & Malkin's opportunities but the rest of the Islanders defense had their issues, particularly Visnovsky & Hickey.
|2||PIT||12:35||Kennedy – GOAL||12||91||24||2||4||20||16||48||24||44||58||92||5v5|
|2||PIT||6:00||Crosby – GOAL||51||21||26||11||14||20||87||12||9||47||58||92||5v5|
|3||PIT||14:07||Letang – GOAL||51||40||3||37||20||71||87||14||7||58||92||4v5|