In a few years, when we look back at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-0 home win in Game 5 of their first-round series with the New York Islanders, a two things will likely endure.
First among those might be Tomas Vokoun’s 31-save shutout, as coach Dan Bylsma replaced No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with the 15-year NHL veteran to provide some stability in the crease. Vokoun had to overcome some early jitters, but settled in as his first start in more than two weeks unfolded. His calm puckhandling around the cage brought the added bonus of neutralizing the Islanders’ forecheck.
Vokoun aside, if you had to reduce Thursday night to one digestible highlight, it would be Sidney Crosby’s slaloming through the New York defense to bury one of the signature goals of his career. I mean, just look at this display of power and finesse:
Adding to the import of that strike was its eerie resemblance to Mario Lemieux’s 1988 goal against the Islanders that has been immortalized in a statue outside Consol Energy Center. Lemieux’s goal ended up splashed on a Sports Illustrated cover, which seems apropos with Crosby’s face on the magazine this week.
Nevertheless, what shouldn’t get lost to history are the noticeable contributions of fourth-liners Tyler Kennedy and Joe Vitale, both of whom made their 2013 playoff debuts in Game 5. Those two skated alongside Craig Adams, and all three logged more than 10 minutes of even-strength ice time because of their sheer effectiveness.
Kennedy and Vitale charged hard down the wings, took the body when it was available and played a straightforward style, which gave the Penguins a foundation of competitiveness in their rather deliberate first period. The tension lifted a bit early in the second when Pittsburgh shifted into a higher gear and began to possess the puck for long stretches in the New York zone.
Of course, a goal was needed to reinforce the productive behavior, and Kennedy connected on a breakaway at 7:25 of the period to further ease the anxious atmosphere. From there the Penguins took off, eventually firing 18 shots in the middle frame and carrying a 3-0 lead into the third.
In interest of full disclosure, I didn’t like that Jussi Jokinen was scratched (along with Tanner Glass) to make room for Kennedy and Vitale. Since arriving via trade from Carolina, Jokinen has shown a versatile game, including an ability to play sound defense and win key faceoffs.
Bylsma made the right call, though. The Islanders had been tormenting the Penguins with their speed up front, something Kennedy and Vitale could help match. Along with sitting slow-footed defenseman Mark Eaton in favor of rookie Simon Despres, “Disco” flipped all the right switches Thursday night.
The type of hockey Kennedy and Vitale play can be contagious. It seemed the Penguins were backchecking a little bit deeper in their own zone in Game 5, taking extra care to move up ice once they retrieved the puck, too. That could be a sign of a coach getting through to his players, but there’s nothing like having an example to emulate.
The Penguins’ investment in their eager foot soldiers gave them a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven series. They’d be wise to follow a similar strategy in Saturday’s Game 6 on Long Island.