UNIONDALE, N.Y. – That was one pleased Penguins’ dressing room after a 3-2 overtime victory over the Islanders at the Coliseum.
Reminiscent of a win at Philadelphia last season; The Vokoun Game, as I like to think of it. The Penguins fell behind, looked to be (again) falling apart amid some Flyers’ headgames. Vokoun spoke up during the first intermission. The Penguins turned in two inspired periods, won – and that was THAT regarding the Flyers’ mental command over them.
This victory, a full rally from 2-0, felt a lot like that for the Penguins.
They were awful – a word many of them used – in the opening period. Their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who really needed a strong performance, had allowed a blah-goal. Their top defenseman, Kris Letang, continued to defy his immense talent with puzzling decisions and passes. Even their most consistent player not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, this guy being Chris Kunitz, was turning over the puck.
The Islanders were playing fast, opportunistic hockey, and their fans – and there were not a lot – were into this one.
It looked and felt like the playoffs, where the Penguins had to hang on for dear life against what seemed an upstart foe.
Captain Sidney Crosby, who was wow-gosh brilliant over the final 25 minutes, had this to offer Tuesday night:
“It was pretty similar,” Crosby said. “They started pretty hard, capitalized on their chances, and we were sitting back a bit. We stayed with it, though.
“I’m sure that (playoff) experience helped us. We had been there before.”
James Neal said he thought this victory would be one the Penguins can call upon when times get tough, as they will, assuredly.
“The biggest thing is the way we found a way to win,” Neal said. “We didn’t have our best stuff. We kept turning pucks over. It felt like they kept coming back on us, 3-on-2, over and over again.
“We kind of found our game even though we strayed away from it.”
These clubs have played three one-goal games this season.
The Penguins have won two of them.
For all the worry the Islanders cause Penguins fans, keep this in mind:
What did the Islanders in last postseason was an inability – probably stemming from lack of experience – to put the Penguins away.
They still have not learned how to do that.
Until they do, this rivalry will remain a white-knuckler, but it will remain as it has for some time: one-sided.
The Penguins are now 18-5-1 in their last 24 against the Islanders.
>> Call it a comeback. The GAME STORY: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5187397-74/penguins-crosby-islanders
>> NOTED leads with Evgeni Malkin’s puzzling No. 2 star for Movember: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5187404-74/malkin-star-penguins#axzz2mLC4c0mb
>> ROSSI’S WORLD
Three bits to take you inside the Penguins, like me.
ONE… Ask one question to any of these four men – Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Kunitz – and they all answer similarly.
The question: Do you feel there is more pressure this year for your scoring to help carry this team?
Their answer: Not really.
They are being modest.
Crosby, Kunitz and Neal have combined to score 38 of the Penguins’ 87 goals. That is 44.5 percent. Malkin has contributed on 37 of those 87, or 42.5 percent.
The cap is down by $6 million.
The Penguins, banged up as are many clubs, have six would-be AHL regulars among their 23-man roster.
This is a team constructed to have its four highest cap-count forwards to carry it.
Crosby and Malkin ($8.7 million apiece), Neal ($5 million) and Kunitz ($3.725 million; slightly less than Pascal Dupuis’ $3.75 million) combined to take up $17.425 million of the $64.3 million cap, or 27.1 percent.
This season, it is all about what those four forwards can do. They have to be great.
They’ve been mostly awesome.
And Neal is actually on pace to lead the team in goals, which is remarkable considering he missed the first month.
Neal has scored 70 goals in his last 134 games since switching from left to right wing. He is 26.
This guy is in his prime, and he is providing a lot more than scoring, too.
Neal’s game has improved – to these eyes, anyway – since he joined the Penguins. He is aggressive on the puck, which he moves well through the neutral zone; he is willing to play physical; and he is smarter than most.
His IQ is a big reason he scores as he does. Neal is open a lot, and that is no accident. He has an elite talent for finding soft spots in the offensive zone. From those, he can get off that potent shot from a lot of bad angles.
Neal practices shooting from those angles, which is why those shots almost always require a goalie to make a save.
He is a thinking man’s sniper.
Great player that guy, so much more than just a goal scorer, really; and when he’s on, as he was in Round 2 against the Senators last season, this team goes from good to great.
TWO… Fleury did need that win. He was deadly serious when saying he had not forgotten the way his playoffs ended on the Island last season.
The biggest difference, at least in terms of body language, between this Fleury and the one I’ve known for eight years is that he legitimately seems not to care what anybody outside the Penguins’ room thinks of him.
That is noteworthy after this victory because there were a lot of eyes from players inside that room on Fleury after Kyle Okposo’s second goal Tuesday. It was a leaker, and it might have been the first chance this season for Penguins’ teammates to really start doubting their go-to goalie.
Fleury was magnificent after that goal, and not one teammate missed a chance to praise his penalty-shot denial of Frans Nielsen, who 2-for-2 in that situation.
That might have been the biggest save of Fleury’s season, and not because it gave the Penguins a chance to win this game.
It probably, at least until the playoffs, saved teammates from any doubt he was the guy they have believed him to be – a big-time goalie.
Remember that save if this postseason ends differently than the last four.
THREE… Ray Shero, post room availability, as he saw me sprinting up the runway that leads to the steps to the media box at Nassau Coliseum, “Whoa. Hey, Rob.”
Me: “Sorry, Ray.”
Shero: “No, I get it – deadlines. Plus, it’s a good workout for you.”
He made a good point.
He also made some time, a bit of it actually, before the game on Tuesday for Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli – a good friend to Shero, and perhaps he who presides over the East club most challenging to the Penguins.
>> HEAR HERE
Josh Yohe has the club on Wednesday. He’s your man.
Catch me on the following radio shows: Penguins Live with Steve Kolbe (3:40 p.m., Penguins HD Radio 24/7 and TribLIVE Radio), the David Todd Show (4:30 p.m., 970-AM).
Be EXCELLENT to each other,