The New York Islanders said all the right things in the days leading up to their first-round playoff matchup against the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
Yes, they knew the odds of an upset in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series were stacked heavily against them, and yes they were aware that the Penguins roster reads more like an All-Star game lineup than an everyday club.
Still, the upstart Islanders declared they were ready and up to the daunting challenge ahead of them.
Whether they truly believed will never be known, but make no mistake, their comeback victory in Game 2 in Pittsburgh gave them a jolt of positive energy they hope carries them today through their first home playoff game in six years.
“We’ve come in believing in ourselves all season long. Nothing has changed in that standpoint,” star forward John Tavares said Saturday.
New York was run over in a 5-0, series-opening loss on Wednesday and seemed primed to be routed again on Friday night when the Penguins scored twice in the first 3:19 and then grabbed a 3-1 lead just 18 seconds after the Islanders netted their first goal of the series.
Sidney Crosby scored Pittsburgh’s second and third goals in his return to the lineup after missing more than a month because of a broken jaw.
However, no one could have predicted that the Penguins would be held off the scoreboard for the final 40 minutes of action.
“I missed two wide-open nets,” Crosby said Saturday after the Penguins practiced at Nassau Coliseum. “I don’t know if we were shut down. I didn’t feel like we were shut down, but at the end of the day we didn’t put the puck in the net.
“We’ve got to find a way to do that if we want to win.”
It is only two games, and the series is tied 1-1, but there is a different feel now. Before the talk was how many games it would take for the Penguins to turn aside the Islanders, now the fight is on.
That was totally clear when New York forward Kyle Okposo had the first fight of his NHL career. After teammate Matt Moulson was hit by Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen, Okposo came to his defense and bloodied Niskanen during the unexpected bout 4:58 into the second period.
Just 14 seconds later, Colin McDonald scored to bring the Islanders within 3-2.
Okposo scored the winning goal with 7:37 left in the third period of New York’s 4-3 victory.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was a part of some exciting days in Nassau Coliseum when he was an Islanders assistant during the 2005-06 season.
He was already warning his players on Saturday that they are in for a totally new experience, down to the part where there likely won’t be the pockets of Penguins fans present that are usually in the arena for regular-season matchups.