Special teams wasn’t just part of the storyline in Game 3 of the opening-round series between the Penguins and the Islanders. It completely changed the narrative, primarily Pittsburgh’s power play versus New York’s penalty kill.
That’s because the Penguins finished 3-for-5 with the man-advantage on Sunday at Nassau Coliseum, with Chris Kunitz scoring the overtime winner on a power play to give Pittsburgh a 5-4 win and a 2-1 series lead. The other two came 19 seconds apart in the first period to tie the score at 2-2 after the Islanders got out to a quick 2-0 lead.
“It was nice that our power play capitalized,” Kunitz said. “Got two quick, got back in it and found a way to get ahead.”
Pittsburgh did give up a shorthanded goal in the third period to help the Islanders come back and tie the score 4-4 to force overtime. But the Penguins redeemed themselves once they got into the extra period by scoring the winner with the extra man.
The Islanders started this game by completely dominating the Penguins from the moment the puck dropped in this arena’s first playoff game since 2007. Buoyed by their deafening crowd, the Islanders outskated, outworked and outplayed the Penguins in the first half or so of the first period – especially in Pittsburgh’s defensive zone – and built a 2-0 lead as a result.
But that all changed 12 minutes and 21 seconds into the period, when Mark Streit went to the penalty box for hooking and Pittsburgh’s loaded power play went to work. As my colleague Sam Kasan tweeted, “This may be just what the Pens need to get back into this.” And it was.
Thirty-three seconds into Streit’s penalty, Travis Hamonic got called for holding on Jarome Iginla and he joined his teammate in the box – giving Pittsburgh a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:27 minutes. Just 24 seconds into that, the Penguins cut the Islanders’ lead to 2-1 when Kris Letang received the puck in the slot, lined it up and beat goalie Evgeni Nabokov with a shot that tipped off Iginla’s stick and in.
Then just 19 seconds after that, Evgeni Malkin made the pass of the playoffs when he retrieved a puck in his own end off the ensuing faceoff, circled up the ice and hit Kunitz with a perfect pass at the blue line that put him behind the D and on a breakaway. Kunitz beat Nabokov glove side to tie the score 2-2.
And just like that, the Islanders’ hot start was a thing of the past and the Penguins had stolen the momentum.
“Yeah, timely, I guess you’d call it,” Kunitz said of the power play. “Down two, you need a big play. The 5-on-3, obviously very fortunate to be able to get one in there and then come back and get another quick on a great pass by Geno. Our power play was great. Our PK was great. It was something where now we just have to work on that 5-on-5 and play in their zone more.”
The Penguins really handled that opportunity perfectly. The unit on the ice for both goals – Letang, Iginla, Malkin, Kunitz and Sidney Crosby – didn’t grip their sticks too tightly despite the situation, instead operating with precision and patience, working the puck methodical and calculated and taking advantage of their chances. They didn’t hesitate to shoot the puck when they had a lane.
“It was pretty emotional to be down that early,” Crosby said. “I thought we did a great job of just staying with it.”
The Penguins did give up that shorty on their fourth power play. So for the overtime power play – their fifth of the game – coach Dan Bylsma chose to use two defensemen on the first unit, replacing Iginla with Paul Martin for more of a defensive posture. And it worked beautifully.
Martin found Crosby at the side of the net, who directed it to Kunitz in the slot. He went down on one knee to blast a heavy shot that beat Nabokov and gave the Penguins the win. Overall, Pittsburgh's power play, which finished No. 2 in the NHL behind Washington during the regular season, is now 6-for-13 in the series – operating at a staggering 46.2 percent.
And the Penguins did not allow a power-play goal in the game, killing off all three Islanders opportunities.