It’s been a while since the Islanders have won the first two games of a playoff series.
Actually, that’s a considerable understatement.
It’s been 36 years, dating to the Islanders’ four-game sweep of the Oilers in 1983 to win the franchise’s fourth straight Stanley Cup.
The Islanders can snap that lengthy drought against the Penguins on Friday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum after winning Game 1 of the first-round series in overtime, 4-3, on Wednesday night.
“It’s been a good start so far,” right wing Jordan Eberle said after Thursday’s practice in East Meadow. “We’ve got a chance tomorrow to take a bit of a stranglehold on it and feel good about it. But we have to expect their best and be ready.”
The key to any playoff series is to improve game by game, and both teams have areas in which they’d like to do better during Game 2.
The Islanders, for the most part, played well within their defensive structure in the first and third periods and in overtime. But they got into a bit of a track meet with the Penguins in the second period and took three of their five penalties. Neither is advisable, given the Penguins’ offensive capabilities and their potent power play.
The Penguins rallied three times from one-goal deficits, including Evgeni Malkin’s power-play goal to tie it at 2-2 at 13:41 of the second period and Justin Schultz’s equalizer with 1:29 left in regulation and the Penguins skating six-on-five.
“I thought in the second period the game was pretty loose and they were just creating chances on the rush,” center Mathew Barzal said. “We’ve just got to limit it as much as we can. We know they’re going to get their chances. We know they’re going to get their open ice. We’ve just got to limit it as much as we can and take away space.”
The Islanders, particularly Casey Cizikas’ line with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck and the defense pairing of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, limited the Penguins’ top line of Sidney Crosby between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust to a combined three shots.
That is a performance that will be hard to duplicate.
“They’re going to be coming at you,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “Their top players are going to be their top players tomorrow night. They rise to those occasions and we’ve got to rise with it. We can’t be comfortable. We just won one game. You don’t even pat yourself on the back.”
“We just didn’t do a good job of getting out of our own zone,” Crosby said. “If you’re spending half your shift there, you don’t have a lot of energy to go the other way. So we’ve got to execute coming out of our zone.”
To do that, the Penguins will need to improve how they handle the Islanders’ relentless forecheck.
“We knew they’d come at us with a heavy forecheck,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “They impose their physical presence and force turnovers.”
Game 1 had its chippy moments. Malkin and defenseman Scott Mayfield went off for roughing at 10:43 of the second period and Penguins defenseman Kris Letang and Brock Nelson traded roughing and slashing minors at 13:42 of the third period.
It’s only natural for the physical nature of a playoff series to intensify after the first game.
“It happens quick,” Martin said. “Keeping the emotions in check is one of the most important things in the playoffs. There were a lot of situations in the game where we could have let our emotions get out of control. We responded the right way every time, and I think that speaks volumes for us as a group.”