Three is the magic number; regardless of whether you play hockey or baseball. (Three periods in hockey, three strikes you’re out in baseball, etc. You get the point.)
As the Isles move into the part of their schedule where they are seeing teams for the third time this season — out of eight — you’re going to see a lot more feistiness. Case in point, the Islanders and Penguins combined for 58 hits (34-24 Islanders) during Thursday night’s 4-1 Isles loss to the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
The first time these teams met this season, a 4-3 Islanders win, the Penguins outhit the Isles 29-20 for the game (49 total hits). The second time they convened, a 4-3 Shootout win for the Penguins, Pittsburgh once again outhit the Islanders, but this time it was a 29-23 margin (52 total hits).
You don’t need to be a mathematician — and believe me I’m far from one — to notice the game-by-game increase in hits between the teams.
Thursday night in Pittsburgh the Islanders came out looking to extend their eight-game points steak. And they were willing to get physical to do so — not that this Isles team ever shies away from hitting.
Just 2:18 into the game, Casey Cizikas engaged Brandon Tanev below the Isles’ goal line (it appeared Cizikas made the first move) as they dropped the gloves for a good old-fashion hockey fight. The “judges” say Cizikas won the fight with a flurry of body shots before the ice-officials broke things up.
It was harder to determine which team immediately gained an advantage in momentum after the fight, but Pittsburgh answered the call 1:57 later as Captain Sidney Crosby — skating in his 999th career game — served up a wicked deflection in front of Semyon Varlamov off a Kasperi Kapanen shot to put the home team out in front 1-0.
This put the Boys from Long Island in an unfamiliar position as they hadn’t trailed at any point during their past two games. However, it’s not like 1-0 early on was a serious deficit, so there wasn’t initially any reason to worry.
And even though the Nassaumen were willing to shoot the puck at a decent rate (they would finish the first period with 14 shots on goal) they were mainly kept to the outside by Pittsburgh’s skaters; unable to get any high-danger scoring chances. Just to highlight the Isles’ willingness to shoot, their defensemen combined for six shots on goal of the team’s 14 — all from the point I should add.
Of course, they also kept on hitting every one in a Penguins sweater; case in point, this hit by Kieffer Bellows on Mike Matheson.
At the end of the first period, the Isles had outshot the Penguins 14-11 and outhit them 14-13, but in the category that matters most — goals — the New Yorkers were down 1-0.
The second period came along and the Boys from Long Island were left with 1:39 of power-play time thanks to a hooking penalty by Crosby in the waning seconds of the first period. However, the Isles recently humming power-play went cold and the opportunity was wasted.
In all fairness though, teams do find it difficult to convert on carryover power-plays as many have admitted it just doesn’t feel as natural as a power-play that begins and ends in the same period.
The Islanders got another power-play opportunity at 6:19 of the second period when Sam Lafferty was called for tripping Adam Pelech but once more New York’s power-play came up empty; although, their special teams play was much better this time around. The problem was the visitors still couldn’t get pucks to the net from high-danger areas; rather, they were still being kept to the outside, which is no place to consistently score from in today’s NHL.
From there the second period became a battle of special teams as New York migrated into the penalty box on three occasions. The offenders were: Anders Lee, Scott Mayfield and Casey Cizikas. In fact, Mayfield’s high-sticking penalty put the Isles in the unenviable position of having to kill off a 5-on-3 Pittsburgh power-play as his penalty came with Lee still in the box for over a minute.
Good thing the Islanders had Varlamov in net as the veteran netminder stood tall, making save-after-save to keep the Isles deficit at 1-0.
Eventually though, the pressure Pittsburgh put on the Islanders became too much for even Varlamov to withstand as Teddy Blueger scored off a rebound with just 1:59 to go in the middle period to increase the Penguins lead to 2-0. (Per MSG Networks Isles Stat Guru, Eric Hornick, the Isles have been outscored 7-2 in the final two-minutes of a period this season. Yikes!)
And just to compound the Isles’s issues, Cizikas went to the box for hooking Jason Zucker with 46-seconds to go in the period, meaning the Isles had to kill off another penalty and that they’d have to spend precious time at the beginning of the third period doing the same.
It almost paid off for New York though as J.G. Pageau and Cal Clutterbuck went up the ice on a 2-on-1 short-handed odd-man rush in the opening moments of the third period to give New York a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, Clutterbuck’s shot went off the crossbar and stayed out; deflating the Islanders in the process.
Pittsburgh’s Jason Zucker eventually added to his team’s lead when he tapped Bryan Rust’s behind-the-net pass past Varlamov for a 3-0 lead that all but spelled the end for the Islanders.
The Penguins controlled play for much of the third period after that and eventually the feistiness amongst the teams once more reared its head.
With 15:27 gone, Mike Matheson — who the Islanders have previously had issues with — was called for boarding Mathew Barzal to send New York to a power-play. And Matheson essentially got off easy with just a minor penalty being called. “That was a bit of a vicious cross check,” Barry Trotz commented after the game.
Nelson tapped Josh Bailey’s backdoor pass past Tristian Jarry and the Isles were within 3-1, but things would soon come to a boiling point.
Bryan Rust scored the empty net goal with 3:06 left in the game to pour a little more salt on the Isles’ wounds (4-1 the score) and then that’s when everything boiled over.
Matt Martin went after Matheson for his previous hit on Barzal; earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as well as a misconduct penalty which ended his night.
And almost a minute later, Scott Mayfield went after Evgeni Malkin in front of the benches and both players were tossed with misconduct penalties as well.
The game finally ended a little over a minute later but the issues between these teams did not. And they will see each other again on Saturday night. It should be a pay per view worthy main event tussle.
J.G. Pageau’s four-game goal-scoring streak was snapped…The Islanders went 1-for-3 on the power-play to go to 10-for-42 on the season…The Isles eight-game points streak was snapped…Brock Nelson’s power-play goal was his fourth goal of the season and they’ve all been on the man advantage.
Saturday February 20th Islanders at Penguins at PPG Paints Arena at 7pm(EST).