PITTSBURGH - Welcome to the playoffs. The Islanders barely had time to wipe their feet on that nice friendly mat, buoyant about taking that first step into the postseason. And they found out it was a trap door. Oops.
The best the Islanders can say after their 5-0 drubbing in their first postseason game since 2007 is that they got it out of the way. The next best thing is that the Islanders are decidedly more of an underdog now than they were at 7:30 , a few minutes before the opening faceoff against the Penguins. Being in the position to overcome something has summoned the best from these Islanders.
"I think we've been in that role ever since I got here, so we're pretty used to it," John Tavares said earlier yesterday. "I don't think many people expected us to be here, probably not many people are giving us a chance in this series. I really don't know that, but we've gotten used to that. We want to take this head on."
For this one night, they took it on the chin. Tavares, one of the elite players in the NHL, was marked so tightly and effectively that he did not even get off one shot. He promises to be forgetful, fast.
"We're going to need to. We don't have much time," Tavares said afterward. "Series are long, but at the same time they can be short, too. We know we have to be a lot better. We didn't make it too hard on them for most of the game. We need to definitely get this out of us and regroup."
Everyone in hockey knows the score: The Islanders were a consensus last-place pick in the preseason, given little chance to make the playoffs. That they reached the postseason was considered an upset. In fact, they had played so well down the stretch that many experts had said this week that they expected the Islanders to give the Penguins a pretty good tussle. The loss, and the way it happened, put the Islanders back into the long-shot category.
To their credit, even though many of the players had never been in the postseason before, the Islanders did not see this trip as a mere bonus for having had a nice season. Complacency wasn't their problem Wednesday night. Nerves were. "That's not an excuse," Kyle Okposo said. "We've still got to play hard. We've got to learn from that and move on."
Their mantra this week had been "just play our game." The idea was to hold off stage fright or over-trying by remaining as normal as possible. They learned, though, that normal doesn't measure up if the other side raises its game. The Penguins' level was about at the ceiling of CONSOL Energy Center. Islanders coach Jack Capuano said his team did not match the opponent's physical intensity.
It wasn't only the first-timers who had a rough go. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov, a veteran of 80 playoff games, was the first to leave, getting pulled only 1:51 into the second period, after the fourth goal. Capuano said it wasn't a matter of Nabokov's performance -- a couple of the goals resulted from sloppy clearing attempts. "I'm not going to leave him in there and hang him out to dry," the coach said.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who used to run the Islanders' power play as an assistant during the Alexei Yashin era, noted Wednesday morning that these Islanders had not been given their due in the preseason.
"They have a good group of young players that are kind of growing up together," he said. "They're a formidable team."
The Islanders, unaccustomed to such compliments, were a forlorn team by the end of Wednesday, trying to figure out how to put a nightmare behind them.
"The sun is going to rise tomorrow," Kyle Okposo said. "A new day."
And the Islanders will be back behind the 8-ball, a more pronounced underdog, which could bring out the best in them.