UNIONDALE, NY—Sidney Crosby picked up an assist but no goal in his first professional game. Evgeni Malkin scored a goal but didn’t add any assists in his first National Hockey League contest.
John Tavares’ NHL debut went better than the two perennial All-Stars he opposed last night. The first overall draft pick fired a sweeping backhand shot in the second period for his first goal after adding a first-period assist, picking up a multi-point game in his debut.
But Crosby scored Pittsburgh’s first goal and the game-winner, combining with Kris Letang for Pittsburgh’s two shootout goals in a 4-3 win. Trent Hunter and Mark Streit added goals for the Islanders, allowing the club to salvage a point in the season opener.
“I think I felt better out there than I did all preseason,” said Tavares, who had his parents and sister in the stands. “All the fans were into it. The pace was high and it was exciting.”
Trent Hunter broke a 2-all deadlock with his snap-shot goal below the circles 7:36 into the final period. Former Islanders’ forward Ruslan Fedotenko prevented his ex-teammates from celebrating in front of a sold-out crowd, sending a wrist shot into the open net with 3:49 remaining in regulation.
Letang and Crosby scored on Pittsburgh’s first two shootout attempts to earn the full two points. Though the shootout scores do not count towards individual goal totals, Tavares missed the chance to find the net again when his attempt sailed high. Crosby then beat new Islanders goalie Dwayne Roloson to send the Penguins off the ice with a win for a second straight night.
Yet the Islanders story centered on Tavares, who sent most of the 16,234-strong Nassau Coliseum throngs into a frenzy with his second-period goal that beat Marc-Andre Fleury and prompted a group hug from teammates Trent Hunter, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson. It took only 27:09 into his first game for the 19-year-old Tavares to post his first career milestone.
“It’s just a lot of excitement,” Tavares said. “All the hard work and everything [I’ve] strived for since I was three years old. It was such a good feeling and it was an important goal at the time.”
Tavares jumped near the glass before his teammates enthusiastically embraced him near the Islanders bench. Moulson didn’t get an assist but Tavares said his fellow Ontario native’s presence made the goal extra sweet.
“We grew up training together for a few years and it was special for him to start the game on my line and help me score my goal,” Tavares said.
Tavares logged two shots in 22:05, including 5:02 of power play time. Gordon said Tavares is maturing in his own zone instead of focusing solely on scoring.
“I think John has been attentive in the defensive zone,” Gordon said. “In training camp and tonight, he’s been committed to the d-side of it. Right from the get-go, we want him to be not just a great offensive player, but to be a great two-way player.”
Roloson allowed an early goal to Crosby before two Pittsburgh third-period goals forced overtime. The Penguins raised a banner in its home opener the previous day in a win against the Rangers yet still mustered 42 shots playing back-to-back days. Roloson stopped 39, including four overtime saves in prompt a shootout .
Roloson, a former first-string goalie for Edmonton, capitalized on his first chance to be a starter in place of the injured Rick DiPietro. One-time Flyers starting goalie Martin Biron will also look to earn a bulk of minutes as the Isles try to shoot up the Eastern Conference standings.
“It’s a process and we have to believe we were as low as we could possibly get last year and now we have to start building positively in the standings,” Gordon said. “I think tonight was a good start.”
Coming off a last-place finish, the Islanders failed to have a single 20-goal scorer for the first time in franchise history. The offense returned to Long Island at least for a night as Tavares’ goal broke a 1-all tie.
The 6-0, 190-pound left-handed shot caused the crowd to pulsate again when he raced in for a breakaway chance just more than two minutes later. Fleury extended his glove to acrobatically knock down Tavares’ breakaway chance midway through the second as Tavares went for his first NHL multi-goal game.
The Islanders were the second-worst scoring team last season yet Tavares said the talent level could improve those scoring chances.
“We’re looking to surprise a lot of people in the future and this year as well,” Tavares said. “Building this nucleus with a lot of veterans we have, I think it’s going to be great this year and down the road.”
Coach Scott Gordon paired Tavares with fellow former first-round pick Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson. Okposo, the Islanders leading scorer from last season, will be looking to form an offensive duo akin to the Pens’ Crosby-Malkin tandem that combined for 216 points last season.
“I don’t think you can compare yourself to anybody,” Okposo said about the parallels to Pittsburgh. “We’d love to do what they did and start from a young core and win a Stanley Cup somebody but we’re looking to improve and get better this season.”
Crosby, the 2004 first-overall pick who led the Penguins to a title last season, showed Islanders’ fans what a highly touted player can do for a moribund franchise. At 22, Crosby is barely old enough to drink but already won a championship ring, a scoring title and an MVP trophy.
The NHL’s 2007 scoring leader scored his second goal in as many games, racing in all alone on Roloson before burying a shot as Pittsburgh surged to a 1-0 lead 8:50 into the game.
But Okposo and Tavares worked towards the Isles’ first goal, each earning the assist 12:40 into the contest when Mark Streit blasted a hard top-of-the-right circle shot for the power play goal. Tavares was credited with the secondary assist and Okposo the first; marking what Islanders fans hope is a harbinger of future success.
“I try not to look too far
ahead but we have a good group of guys here,” Okposo said. “We were moving the puck pretty well out there.
“Maybe down the road it can lead to something special. Hopefully this year it does, too.”
Notes: Okposo served as the on-ice captain with Doug Weight out of the lineup…Malkin added one assist, two shots and was a plus-2 in 23:12…Fleury finished with 25 saves.