A dream shot from Brooks Orpik ended what could’ve been a nightmare series for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 10-year veteran defenseman scored his first career playoff goal 7:49 into overtime, shoving the Penguins past the New York Islanders 4-3 in Saturday’s Game 6 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Pittsburgh took the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series four games to two, advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Two weeks ago, suggesting that the top-seeded Penguins would struggle mightily with the Islanders would’ve been laughable. Instead, New York gave Pittsburgh all it could handle in four of the six games, including Game 6 in front of another berserk Long Island crowd.
League MVP finalist John Tavares gave the Isles the lead 5 1/2 minutes into the game, foreshadowing how the Pens would have to play from behind for most of the evening. Jarome Iginla and Pascal Dupuis netted goals to tie the game at 2 heading for the third, but Michael Grabner put the home side back on top early in the final regulation frame.
However, the Penguins seemed to gain energy as time ticked down, culminating in Paul Martin’s first goal of the series with 5:16 remaining. Pittsburgh continued to press the issue after that, but couldn’t punch another puck past Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, setting up the second overtime of the series.
Chris Kunitz won Game 3 in sudden death on Long Island, and this time it was Orpik’s turn to connect. His first goal in 78 postseason games made the Penguins unbeaten in their last seven playoff overtime contests on the road.
Evgeni Malkin, who earned the primary assist on Martin’s equalizer, picked up the secondary helper on the winner. Bursting off the Pittsburgh bench, Malkin jammed the puck down the right wing wall and handed it to Tyler Kennedy, who spun a pass to Orpik at the point. The 32-year-old defensive-minded blueliner hammered a 55-footer over Nabokov’s right shoulder to arrange a date with Ottawa in the East semis.
Malkin’s two critical assists redeemed what had been a poor Game 6 performance from last year’s NHL MVP. Despite his inconsistencies, Malkin finished the first round with 11 points (2g, 9a), which is a career-best series total and ties him with Boston’s David Krejci for the playoff scoring lead.
Iginla was almost as prolific against the Islanders, recording two goals and six assists in his first playoff series with the Penguins. He cleaned up the rebound of Sidney Crosby’s point-blank backhand shot at 7:39 of the opening period, countering Tavares’ third playoff goal.
The Islanders kept the pedal down, leading to former Penguin Colin McDonald’s second goal of the series. Keith Aucoin found McDonald wide open in front of Pittsburgh goalie Tomas Vokoun, who had no chance with 37 seconds to go in the first.
Joe Vitale, inserted into the lineup along with Kennedy in Thursday’s Game 5, was the catalyst in the second period as the Penguins tied it again. After the Islanders dominated the early stages of the frame, Vitale fed Dupuis at the top of the crease for a deft redirection under Nabokov at 10:59. Dupuis led the Penguins with five goals in the series.
Still, New York exited the second with a 28-13 advantage in shots on goal – and just as wide of a disparity in quality of play. When Aucoin picked off a poorly-aimed Kris Letang pass and fed Grabner for an easy one-timer, it was easy to envision the Islanders holding on to force Game 7 on Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
Instead, the Penguins played their best hockey from that point forward. With under six minutes showing on the clock, Malkin whirled around the Islanders goal and gave Martin a backhand pass at the top of the left circle. Martin’s snap shot deflected off the stick of New York’s Frans Nielsen and over Nabokov’s glove, a common spot for many of the Penguins’ 25 goals in the series.
Pittsburgh’s multiple rallies were made possible by the stout play of the 36-year-old Vokoun, who made 35 saves. After shutting out the Islanders in Game 5 to help put the Penguins back on top in the series, Vokoun made crucial stops throughout Game 6, most notably a third-period denial of Kyle Okposo on a 2-on-1 rush.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will have a difficult decision to make with regards to his goaltending in Round 2, as first-stringer Marc-Andre Fleury will be eager for redemption after a shaky first four games of the playoffs. Game 1 against the Senators will be in Pittsburgh, likely on Tuesday or Wednesday night.
Notes: The Penguins improved to 1-3 all-time in playoff series against the Islanders. New York won matchups in 1975, 1982 and 1993, with the maximum number of games needed in each…Pittsburgh and seventh-seeded Ottawa will meet for the fourth time in the last seven postseasons. The Senators won the first series in 2007, with the Penguins prevailing in 2008 and 2010…Ottawa ousted Northeast Division champion Montreal in five games in the first round…Crosby scored nine points (3g, 6a) despite missing Game 1.