PITTSBURGH -- This was an all-too-familiar scenario, a 2-0 lead wasted by the New York Islanders against the surging Pittsburgh Penguins. Only this time, the result wasn't quite as predictable.
The Islanders gave away the lead but not the game, coming back to hand the Penguins one of their costliest defeats of the season, 5-3 Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center. Frans Nielsen had two goals and Kyle Okposo scored the go-ahead goal and set up another.
There are losses, and then there are difficult-to-explain losses -- and this was one of those for the Penguins as their home ice winning streak ended at 10 games, one short of their team record set in 1990-91.
They began the night with a chance to move past the Rangers and into first place in the Eastern Conference, only to lose to a team they usually dominate. Even worse for the Penguins, the Rangers beat Minnesota 3-2 to extend their lead to three points, 103-100.
The Penguins had been 4-0-0 against the Islanders this season and had won 13 in a row against the Islanders in Pittsburgh since Dec. 21, 2007.
"When you have a record like that in a team's building, sometimes you just need to break the goose egg and come out with a victory." said Josh Bailey, who had three assists. "Hopefully winning there tonight can kind of crack that."
Pittsburgh rallied from that 2-0 deficit after one period on goals by Tyler Kennedy and James Neal early in the second, but still lost in regulation for only the second time in 17 games (14-2-1). By doing so, the Penguins squandered two valuable points that might prove difficult to get back with only six games remaining. The teams meet again Thursday night at the Nassau Coliseum.
As unpredictable as the Islanders' victory was – they had been shut out in three of their previous four games in Pittsburgh – so was the way they accomplished it. They didn't get a single point from their top line of Matt Moulson, John Tavares and PA Parenteau, which has been producing 46 percent of their goals.
There was another odd twist, too, as neither one of the starting goalies finished a game in which the Penguins outshot the Islanders 54-25 yet couldn't win despite Neal's two goals and Evgeni Malkin's two assists. Malkin, the NHL scoring leader, is one point away from his third 100-point season in six seasons.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury absorbed an inadvertent elbow from teammate Paul Martin on Nielsen's second goal at 18:08 of the second. As Nielsen broke into the Penguins zone, Fleury moved well up the slot to try to poke check the puck away, but Nielsen skated around him to score into the abandoned net as Martin rammed into Fleury. Fleury was replaced by rookie Brad Thiessen at the start of the third period.
"I'm good," said Fleury, who insisted he wasn't hurt. "I didn't come back for the third because I allowed five goals."
Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (lower-body injury) also left in favor of Al Montoya after the second. Nabokov made 30 saves and Montoya stopped 21 of 22 shots in the third period.
"That's real tough, especially against a great team they were dominating at the time and he came in and played great," defenseman Dylan Reese said of Montoya's relief performance. "That's tough circumstances."
A regular-season game in which both goalies are replaced at the same time is about as common as, well, an Islanders win in Pittsburgh, given the last previous one occurred more than four years ago.
But despite being on the verge of playoff elimination, the Islanders played well during a just-concluded 4-1-0 road trip that ended with wins against the Florida Panthers and Penguins.
Still, that 2-0 lead resulting from goals by Nielsen and Michael Grabner in the first period must have made the Islanders a bit nervous considering they gave up such leads while losing to the Penguins 3-2 on Oct. 27 and 6-3 on Dec. 10.
Coach Jack Capuano knew what was going through his players' minds, too.
"Here we go again, yeah," he said.
The last time the Islanders visited Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby dominated them with two goals and two assists in his first comeback game of the season, a 5-0 Penguins victory on Nov. 21. There was no such performance this time as the Islanders ended yet another losing streak against an Atlantic Division team; three months ago, they halted a four-year, 13-game losing streak in Philadelphia.
"We've got to start beating teams that are perennial stars. These are teams we need to beat to establish ourselves," Reese said.
Grabner's goal was a near gift, a shot from well above the left circle that hit Fleury's glove and toppled into the net with only five seconds left in the first period.
Pittsburgh, which had lost in regulation only five times in its previous 33 games, tied it on Tyler Kennedy's goal at 1:42 of the second and Neal's 36th goal, off a cross-ice pass by Chris Kunitz, less than three minutes later.
Neal took a remarkable 12 shots and Jordan Staal had eight but, to coach Dan Bylsma and several Penguins players, what mattered were their defensive lapses.
"We have to be better. We're giving up too many scoring chances," said Crosby, whose 21:09 of ice time was the most he has played in the eight games since he returned from a 40-game injury layoff on March 15. "We did get a lot of shots but we didn't deserve to win the hockey game and that's why we got beat. We got what we deserved."
Okposo scored unassisted on a sizzling wrist shot from the right circle off a Brooks Orpik turnover at 12:48 of the second to make it 3-2, and David Ullstrom pumped in a cross-slot pass from Bailey with the Islanders on the power play at 15:20. Nielsen's second of the night and 17th of the season put the Isles up 5-2 after two periods -- the first time they led by more than two goals in Pittsburgh since Dec. 31, 2003.
Neal scored his 37th of the season on a power play at 15:42 of the third, the only goal scored against either of the replacement goalies.
"We're trying to outscore teams instead of trying to out-defend teams and it's catching up to us," Orpik said. "Definitely, going to the playoffs, you're not going to get away with that."