Pittsburgh — The New York Islanders don’t play a particularly sexy brandy of hockey. They forecheck. They backcheck. They block shots and take few risks, more focused on fundamentals than flash.
It’s a style designed to frustrate opponents regardless of pedigree, one that has them on the cusp of just their second playoff series win in more than a quarter-century.
Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson scored 62 seconds apart in the first period to quickly erase a rare deficit, Robin Lehner stopped 25 shots and the Islanders moved within one victory of finishing off Sidney Crosby and the rest of the frustrated Pittsburgh Penguins with a 4-1 win on Sunday to take a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
It’s heady territory for a franchise that’s advanced past the first round just once since 1993. Yet the Islanders certainly look like they belong on the big stage. They’ve outscored Pittsburgh 11-5 through three games and have trailed for less than four minutes through nine-plus periods against a team that began the playoffs looking to capture its third Stanley Cup in four years, a dream that’s all but vanished.
“We kind of did our best to play simple hockey and really just grind it out a little bit,” said New York forward Anders Lee, whose empty-net goal with 1:28 to go pushed the Islanders to the cusp of an unlikely sweep.
It’s what the Islanders do.
While they lack Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower, they’ve made up for it with depth and resiliency. Rather than get rattled after Garrett Wilson gave the Penguins just their second lead of the series when he redirected a point shot by Lehner just past the midway point of the first period, the Islanders responded immediately.
Eberle beat Matt Murray short side from just above the goal line 28 seconds after Wilson’s score to tie the game and Nelson finished off a 2-on-1 to put New York in front to stay just over a minute later. Lehner withstood a series of pushes by the Penguins, and the Islanders counterpunched brilliantly in the third period behind goals from Leo Komarov and Lee to pull away.
“Playoffs are all about momentum,” said Eberle, who has three goals in three games. “When you can take some team’s momentum away and just continue to build yours, it’s key.”
Matt Murray finished with 32 saves for the Penguins, but Pittsburgh again struggled to generate any sort of sustained offensive pressure.
New York, which allowed an NHL-low 196 goals on its way to a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division, has clamped down on Crosby and linemate Jake Guentzel. The two — who combined for 75 goals and 101 assists during the regular season — have yet to record a point in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh needs a win in Game 4 on Tuesday to avoid being swept for the first time since the 2013 Eastern Conference finals against Boston.
“You’ve got to find ways to score goals this time of year,” Crosby said. “It’s not easy but you’ve got to find a way to do it and obviously we haven’t done a good job of it through the first three games.”
The Islanders controlled Games 1 and 2 back home on Long Island to take the franchise’s first 2-0 postseason lead since the 1983 Stanley Cup finals, when they completed their run of four straight championships by sweeping Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.
The Penguins insisted it wasn’t time to panic, with coach Mike Sullivan downplaying the idea his team needed to play with desperation. Still, he opted to tinker with his lines in search of a spark, elevating Dominik Simon to the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and putting Jared McCann — who sat out Game 2 with a lower-body injury — on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
It didn’t quite work. Simon had a chance to even the score late in the first period, but Guenztel’s crossing pass at the end of a 3-on-1 headed to Simon’s stick instead of his skate, emblematic of a series in which few bounces have gone Pittsburgh’s way. Not that the Penguins were looking for sympathy.
“If we work hard and do the right things, we’ll earn our bounces,” Crosby said.
The Islanders have certainly earned theirs.
Now they find themselves in a spot that seemed improbable at best a week ago: heading to Game 4 with a chance to make Pittsburgh’s playoff stay the shortest of the Crosby/Malkin era. They’re also aware the next victory will be the hardest to come by.
“This group is not afraid of work,” said first-year Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who led Washington past Pittsburgh last spring on the way to the Stanley Cup. “They’re not afraid of competition. They’re not afraid of a whole lot.”
►(At) Columbus 3, Tampa Bay 1: The Blue Jackets extended their postseason mastery of the Lightning, beating the NHL’s best team and moving to within a game of sweeping the playoff series.
Matt Duchene, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Cam Atkinson scored, and Sergei Bobrovsky fended off a desperate third-period charge to finish with 30 saves for the Blue Jackets, who took a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal. Columbus will try to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history in Game 4 at home Tuesday night.
Without their top scorer, the suspended Nikita Kucherov, and injured defenseman Victor Hedman, the Lightning, who won a league-best 62 games in the regular season, couldn’t find any momentum until late in the final period, and then Bobrovsky rose to the challenge. Ondrej Palat scored for Tampa Bay.
Columbus has commanded the series since they fell behind 3-0 in the opening period of Game 1, only to rally to win that one 4-3. They beat the Lightning 5-1 in Game 2, and solidly outplayed them for all but a few minutes on Sunday.
►Winnipeg 6, (at) St. Louis 3: Kyle Connor scored twice, Patrik Laine had a goal and an assist, and the Jets beat the Blues to climb back into its playoff series.
Winnipeg dropped the first two games by one goal, but got back on track in St. Louis. Kevin Hayes, Brandon Tanev and Dustin Byfuglien also scored, and Connor Hellebuyck made 25 saves.
Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night in St. Louis.
David Perron, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen scored for the Blues, and Jordan Binnington made 23 stops.
►(At) Vegas 6, San Jose 3: Mark Stone had three goals and two assists, and the Golden Knights beat the Sharks to take a 2-1 lead in its first-round playoff series.
Paul Stastny collected two goals and three assists as Vegas captured another high-scoring matchup with San Jose. Max Pacioretty had a goal and an assist, defenseman Shea Theodore had three assists and Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves.
The Golden Knights and Sharks scored 15 times while splitting the first two games in San Jose. Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
Kevin Labanc, Logan Couture and Tim Meier scored for San Jose, and Martin Jones stopped 34 shots.