PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby does not just rise to the occasion, he creates occasions. All day Friday, there was a buzz because the Penguins center, described by Islanders star John Tavares as "the best player in the world," finally was coming back from a broken jaw.
The buzz turned to a roar when Crosby first set foot on the ice, and the roar turned into a bigger roar when he scored twice in the first 7:22 of a game that had all the earmarks of a happy Pittsburgh reunion and another blowout.
Clearly, the Penguins led with their strength: the 25-year-old who is the face of hockey (with a smile featuring a gap on the bottom row where teeth used to be before he was clipped by a shot that kept him out for more than a month).
Then the Islanders led with their own strength: utter resilience. They overcame a dispiriting 5-0 loss in Game 1, they overcame a Penguins goal 43 seconds into Game 2, they overcame an early 3-1 deficit, they overcame Crosby and they won, 4-3.
They tied their playoff series at 1 game apiece, showing that the Islanders can play with the best of them.
"It's kind of been our season all year. We've had some ups and downs and we haven't gotten discouraged," said Kyle Okposo, who seemed to fire up the Islanders with a second-period fight with Matt Niskanen while sticking up for teammate Matt Moulson. Okposo later scored the winning goal at 12:23 of the third on a double carom off the end boards and off goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. "It was kind of fluky," the scorer said.
As far as the Islanders were concerned, Okposo -- a former first-round draft pick whose cachet never has been confused with Crosby's -- deserved the good break. "People always say the hockey gods find their way of rewarding people," Tavares said after registering his first playoff point with an assist.
The real point was that after the game, people were not talking about Crosby, as they had been doing all day and all week. Except for Tavares saying that the Islanders realized they "left Sidney and [Evgeni] Malkin unmarked," the world's best player was an afterthought.
Sure, the Islanders respect Crosby and all that he represents. The center does not mind the burden of being the face of hockey. He is a celebrity of the first order in Canada. Even though four Canadian teams are in other Stanley Cup playoff series, there is a healthy contingent of print and TV reporters here from his (and hockey's) home and native land.
Returning to play meant wearing a conspicuous and seemingly uncomfortable mouth protector. "It's the best I can do, so it's going to be OK," Crosby said earlier.
Crosby is willing to do whatever he must: wear an odd-looking helmet, get scrutinized in his country, get booed on the road, be the face of the NHL.
But the Islanders insist they have a guy in that class, too. Tavares' presence has made the whole team a bunch of believers. "We don't have much playoff experience, but just our experiences during the season . . . there's a lot of character in this room to pull together and find ways to get wins," Moulson said.
This is a whole different series now. This is no token postseason appearance, destined to end with a patronizing "nice try" and "learning experiences."
Coming back tomorrow afternoon to Nassau Coliseum, where the fans have been waiting six years to see a playoff game and a lot longer than that for a chance to see something this promising, the Islanders have a legitimate shot.
They rose to the occasion, big time, last night. They showed that on a given night, they can be better than even the best in the world.