After dropping two of three to the New York Islanders to tie their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at two games apiece, the Pittsburgh Penguins made some lineup changes. Among those, Tomas Vokoun started in goal, while forwards Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale were inserted to provide more speed and tenacity.
All three came through in their own ways in Thursday night’s Game 5, and with a sensational Sidney Crosby effort highlighting a three-goal second period, the Penguins downed the Islanders 4-0 at Consol Energy Center to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven.
After a tense first period that saw the Islanders outshoot the Penguins 14-7, Kennedy, Douglas Murray and Crosby all connected within a seven-minute span to release the pressure valve and provide an immediate cushion for Vokoun. The 36-year-old, playing his first postseason game in six years, stopped 31 shots for the shutout in replacing the struggling Marc-Andre Fleury.
Kris Letang scored on the power play in the third to boost the Pittsburgh lead to four and remove any remaining suspense. Game 6 will be at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, at a time yet to be determined.
There was plenty of doubt in the air in Thursday’s first period, with the Penguins and Vokoun keeping New York off the scoreboard, albeit in sometimes-shaky fashion. Vokoun appeared to settle in as the night continued, which was to be expected considering his last game appearance came more than two weeks ago.
Kennedy and Vitale needed no time to get their legs going, even though they each sat out the first four games of the series. Joined by veteran stalwart Craig Adams on the fourth line, Nos. 48 and 46 played no-frills, straight-line hockey from their first shifts on. Their hard-charging style seemed to streamline the Penguins’ collective game, which eventually led to an 18-shot second period that decided the game.
Seven and a half minutes into the frame, Kennedy called for the puck at the Islanders blue line and got it in stride from Letang, a brilliant stretch pass. Kennedy dusted it off and fired a wrist shot over New York goalie Evgeni Nabokov’s glove to break the scoreless tie.
A little more than a minute later, the Penguins led 2-0 when Nabokov allowed a long-range floater from Murray to bounce off his shoulder and in the net. The hulking Murray, who recently ended a two-year goal drought, got credit for his second goal in three games.
Then it was another episode of the Crosby show, although Vokoun had a supporting role in setting the stage. NHL MVP candidate John Tavares nearly cut the New York deficit in half with a nifty move that saw him undress Pens defenseman Paul Martin and snap a shot from the left circle. Vokoun went down to a knee to deny him, and moments later Crosby raised the Pittsburgh lead to three.
Taking a quick pass from new linemate Jarome Iginla at center ice, Crosby darted between New York’s Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey at the blue line and bore down on Nabokov. With a well-placed snap shot inside the left post, Crosby netted what will likely go down as one of the signature goals of his career, his third of the series with exactly six minutes left in the period.
The spotlight belonged to Vokoun in the third, especially after Crosby fed Letang for a slapper that chased Nabokov for the second time in this series. Islanders backup goalie Kevin Poulin also played in Game 1, a 5-0 Penguins win that strongly resembled Game 5.
Vokoun’s calm puckhandling around the net rivaled his best stops, effectively neutralizing what had been a strong Islanders forecheck in Games 2-4. The sellout crowd chanted his last name at any opportunity, especially when he held his ground on goalmouth scrambles.
There’s little doubt Dan Bylsma will stick with the changes he made for Game 4, and why not? From shuffling lines – Chris Kunitz was reunited with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – to redrawing the scratch list, the Penguins coach made all the right moves Thursday night, helping his team within one win of the second round.
Notes: Simon Despres replaced Mark Eaton on the Penguins blue line, the fourth player to go from the press box to the ice for Game 5…Ten different Penguins scored at least a point, with Crosby and Letang getting two each…Thursday marked the first Penguins playoff game started by someone other than Fleury since Johan Hedberg manned the crease in 2001…Jussi Jokinen and Tanner Glass were healthy scratches after playing in the first four games…Vokoun’s clean sheet gave the Penguins two shutouts in the same playoff series for the first time in franchise history.