UNIONDALE, NY — Distinguishing between the defending Eastern Conference champions and a team fighting to stay out of the draft lottery was difficult through the first 39 minutes of last night’s game.
The Islanders seemed like a team in control and ready to take advantage of a lethargic Penguins club that inserted a rookie goaltender after starter Dany Sabourin couldn’t prevent the Isles from forging a three-goal lead.
But for all the talk of an Islanders youth moment establishing impact players for the future, Pittsburgh’s young guns put on a clinic in a four-goal third period en route to a 5-3 comeback win in front of 14,871 at Nassau Coliseum.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are already perennial All-Stars despite each still being younger than 25. Malkin, who is barely old enough to legally drink, torched veteran and young Islanders alike, recording the natural hat trick while adding an assist in the final 20 minutes to send the Isles’ three-game winning streak to a screeching halt.
Down 3-0 with the clock ticking down to the second intermission, Brooks Orpik’s tally broke Joey MacDonald’s shutout bid with 18.7 seconds remaining. After the break, Crosby added his eighth goal of the season and Malkin completed the comeback with three goals in just 8:39. Pittsburgh out-shot the Isles, 14-6, in the final period.
Orpik’s comments after the game encapsulated the Islanders problems, providing a verbal checklist of all that went wrong. The Islanders blew a two-goal lead the last time the Pens came to Nassau County, resulting in a 4-3 shootout loss on Nov. 8. This time, the home team couldn’t even salvage a point.
“I really can’t pinpoint the turning point. It was almost the same pattern as the last time we played them,” Orpik said. “They were really tough to play against in the first two periods. They were getting on the forecheck so quickly. For whatever reason, they began to sit back and played not to lose.
“They were giving us a lot more time with the puck and a lot more space. If you give Malkin and Crosby that kind of space, eventually they are going to beat you.”
The Islanders wasted a chance to even its won-loss record, falling to 9-11-2. More troubling is the fact that in 10 games in which the Isles have led going into the third period, the club has only picked up six victories.
“If you don’t compete for 60 minutes, you’re not giving yourself a chance,” defenseman Brendan Witt said.
Malkin didn’t score on the Penguins first goal in the final period, though his actions set-up the quick strike. With Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien moving Malkin on Crosby’s line, the 22-year-old Russian responded by sending a hard backhand pass to a wide open Crosby in the right crease. Crosby slammed home the easy one-timer for his eighth goal of the season, making it 3-2 just 6:18 into the third.
Crosby returned the favor nearly four minutes later, completed a near-full spin move before firing a hard pass from the left boards to a streaking Malkin, who skated in untested and unleashed a blazing wrist shot over goalie Joey MacDonald’s left shoulder to tie it at 3.
Malkin completed the comeback just 50 seconds later, teaming again with Crosby. Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton tried to carry the puck behind the net but lost possession. Crosby dove and fired a feed to Malkin, who completed the one-timer in the low slot for the go-ahead tally.
Malkin added an empty net goal with 18 seconds left for his third career hat trick. Crosby and Malkin combined for seven points, all in the final period to help Pittsburgh improve to 13-5-3.
“We became tired because we spent so much time in our zone,” Islanders coach Scott Gordon said. “It wasn’t a question of getting fatigued from forechecking. It was getting fatigued because we were doing the wrong things that led us to have to work in the wrong areas.”
The finish was the dichotomy of the Isles’ quick start. Doug Weight, Trent Hunter and Bill Guerin helped establish a 3-0 lead, including two goals on the power play. After Guerin ripped a shot past Sabourin from between the circles to make it a three-goal game 9:27 into the second, Therrien put in Curry for his NHL debut.
The rookie turned aside all 11 shots he faced in 30:33, allowing his team’s potent offense to come roaring back. MacDonald, who finished with 25 saves, said his counterpart’s play off the bench helped shift momentum.
“We just stopped skating and we never made a pass in the third period,” MacDonald said. “We got the puck and the next thing you know, it was coming back in our end.
“I think once we got the third goal and they changed goaltenders, the game totally changed in their way.”
Witt explained the loss in more blunt terms.
“We may have gotten a little cocky,” he said. “Things were going our way and I think we got away from our game the last five minutes in the second. We got a little overconfident and we’re not a run-and-gun team. We got away from our game.”