Championship teams – and emerging ones – respond to adversities and challenges by playing like champions. Much to the dismay of diehard Islander fans everywhere, it is more likely the next NY Islanders Stanley Cup Champion banner will be raised in Brooklyn rather than on Long Island. That is not to say, however, that this group of up and comers cannot go out and play likechampions now. The billion dollar Barclay’s question is how this team would respond to yet another adversity test in Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum. Trailing this Eastern Quarterfinals series 2-1, the John Tavares led Islanders are faced with yet another must win situation. Going back to Pittsburgh down 3-1 is most certainly a death sentence, so if there is to be another game in Uniondale, this team must win tonight. Pressure? The Islanders still think not. After all, this is the same team that professed they play their best under pressure, and they confirmed that belief by going out and winning Game 2 after getting dismantled 5-0 in Game 1. Could that belief system be confirmed yet again?
The fans believed. They were certainly showing no signs of pessimism at the start of the game. The Coliseum was rocking right from the drop of the first puck. Immediately, taunts of “Fleury” and the signature “Let’s Go Islanders” chant filled the arena. An Islander power play just 1:22 into the game further ignited the fans. Despite going scoreless in the early man advantage, the Islanders were dominating the tempo, applying consistent pressure on Fleury and converging upon the net minder non-stop. Pittsburgh fans got a major scare at the 7:14 mark when Sidney Crosby took a deflected puck off Chris Kunitz, eerily reminiscent of the jaw breaker he suffered in late March. He would eventually return after missing a few shifts, but just a few minutes later Brian Strait rocketed one past Fleury from the left circle to open the scoring and give the Islanders a 1-0 lead, a lead that would be short-lived. 45 seconds later James Neal beat a wildly out of position Nabokov to tie the score at one. This would be pure hockey foreshadowing, as this would turn out to be one of those classic goal-for-goal contests. The period would end with the Islanders going to the power play again, and I settled in for what I knew would be a very interesting and nerve wracking second period.
The Islanders opened the second with a man advantage, their third of the game. Unlike the previous two power plays, this power play saw too much finesse and not enough punch. As a result, the power play unit remained scoreless. I could not help but think that these missed opportunities would come back to haunt them and sure enough, Pitt was awarded their own power play just moments later. They controlled the play in the Islander zone, and the NY penalty killers could not get off the ice. Bodies were flying everywhere and the Islanders were clearly running out of gas. But they did hang on and kept the powerful Penguin power play scoreless. I could breathe again. Shortly after, the Islanders went on their fourth power play of the game when Matt Cooke took up residence in his home away from home for goaltender interference and at last it yielded results. Mark Streit blasted a shot from the point that Tavares, correctly parked in front of the net, deflected in past Fleury to give the Islanders their second lead of the game at 13:30. Can they hold the lead for more than 45 seconds this time around? Not really. Just 58 seconds later Malkin and Neal broke in two-on-one and Malkin beat Nabokov to tie it at 2. So yes, it is indeed going to be one of those games. But now it has to be recognized that the Islanders are not just merely in the playoffs. Surely the hockey world sees that this is a team full of grit and determination and not to be accused of joining the dance thanks solely to a shortened season. The Islanders are going to give the juggernaut Penguins a run for their money. Memories of the epic 1993 playoff round against the Mario Lemieux Penguins arose. I was beginning to believe that Rocky can beat Creed, that the USA can beat Russia. It’s been a long time since this Islander fan sincerely believed, and it felt oh so good. And wouldn’t you know it; the smile got wiped right off of my face. Following a monstrous hit delivered by Cooke on Matt Carkner in the Islander corner boards, Brandon Sutter converted at the 8:55 mark to give Pitt their first lead of the game. And then at the 7:00 mark Pitt is awarded yet another power play. Considering the damage they did with a man advantage in Game 3, it was time to get seriously concerned. To make matters worse, Keith Aucoin was forced to serve the Andrew MacDonald penalty. A Mac is headed injured to the locker room. He would not return. Tums please! Thankfully no damage is done by the Pitt power play, and then at 1:22 Kyle Okposo banks one off Fleury (sound familiar?) from behind the net to tie it up at 3, a score that would stand at the conclusion of the period. Once again I brace myself for a wild third. Let’s get ready to rumble!
The Coliseum is literally shaking to its foundations at the start of the final session in regulation. But just one minute into the period, Chris Kunitz of Pitt takes what appears to be a harmless shot towards the net from the left circle and it deflects off the back of Pascal Dupuis’ jersey despite being guarded closely as he drove to the net. Pittsburgh regains the lead yet again giving the Pens a 4-3 advantage. This is really getting wild, but I don’t particularly care for the nausea the butterflies in my stomach are causing. The officials, who had up to this point been drunk with penalty calling authority, are letting anything and everything go uncalled. I for one don’t have a problem with that provided the non-calls are balanced for each side. And they were. Mayhem is happening on the ice and I love it. The Coliseum loves it. And so do the Islanders. At 15:28, Mark Streit continued his offensive defensive play and tied the game up yet again at 4, his first of the playoffs. The captain’s blast from the blue line reminded all why he wears the “C” on his sweater. Big players play big in big games right? We all know that. And John Tavares knows it too. At 9:45, Brad Boyes stymied a Malkin breakout at the Islander blue line and neatly fed big number 91 who defied the laws of physics with surreal puck control. Tavares weaved towards the net under heavy surveillance and collected his own rebound to net his third goal of the playoffs to give the Islanders a 5-4 lead. It would turn out to be the game winner. Big players play big in big games. Championship teams – or budding ones – play big in big games. Let’s say it together. Then with 65 seconds left in the third, Casey Cizikas streaked down the right wing boards, muscled his way in on net, and sealed the game with his second of the playoffs. New York 6, Pittsburgh 4. Game over. And to further send a message that they belong, the Islanders stood tall against Pittsburgh at the final whistle as several gloves were dropped and some minor brawls ensued. Sorry Pittsburgh. This Islander team will not back down. They will not be intimidated. See you in Pittsburgh Thursday night for Game 5. It’s a best of three series now. Be afraid Penguins. Be very afraid.