PITTSBURGH — Sweep.
A regular season of surprising their critics turned into a true display of Islanders’ resiliency on Tuesday night as they clinically dispatched a Penguins team still only two years removed from back-to-back Stanley Cups.
They did it with a 3-1 win in Game 4 at PPG Paints Arena for their first playoff series sweep since the 1983 Stanley Cup Final.
“We set out in this to have a good series and we set out to win it,” captain Anders Lee said. “It probably happened a little bit quicker than most people thought. It’s a credit to how we played.”
The Islanders finished the game two players short, playing half the game with five defensemen after Johnny Boychuk was hurt and then losing Cal Clutterbuck late in the second period. And they were again able to overcome a one-goal deficit, when the Penguins energized the crowd of 18,609 with a goal in the opening minute.
But nothing rattled these Islanders — who spent the regular season debunking the narrative they would be a lesser team without John Tavares — as they stuck to their defensive structure and supported Robin Lehner (32 saves) by limiting rebounds.
“I talked to the guys in the summer when I got here,” said Lehner, who signed a one-year deal after the Sabres made him an unrestricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. “A lot of the guys said right away we’re going to go far. I think that just grew during the season when our system started to jell and we started to play together.”
The Penguins, who got 23 saves from Matt Murray, played their best game of the series because Sidney Crosby was finally a force — “a beast,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said — getting his only point as he set up Jake Guentzel’s goal just 35 seconds into the game for a short-lived 1-0 lead.
“There’s not one single team in this league that crushed us or we couldn’t play against,” said Lehner, who drew a slashing penalty against Patric Hornqvist at 10:33 of the second period while his fellow Swede got four minutes for roughing and the two had to be separated by linesman Johnny Murray. “We have a good team and we’ve been overlooked a little bit because we have a lot of high-end skill on this team and we showed that this series.”
The Islanders, who finished second in the Metropolitan Division to earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs for the first time since 1988, await the winner of the Capitals-Hurricanes’ first-round series. The Capitals, who finished one point ahead of the Islanders in the division, lead that series, 2-1, with Game 4 at Carolina on Thursday night.
“We’re going to have some time off to regroup here,” said Jordan Eberle, who tied the game at 1-1 at 2:09 in the first period after the Islanders allowed the first goal for the third straight game.
“The biggest thing is to stay even-keeled,” added Eberle, who had a goal in each of the four games. “Sometimes you get too ahead of yourself. The biggest thing is, it’s one series. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
The Islanders’ swift victory in their first playoff appearance since 2016 means NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum is closed for hockey until next season. The Islanders will play home games in subsequent rounds at Barclays Center.
Brock Nelson, with his third goal of the series, got to the crease to take Josh Bailey’s feed off Tom Kuhnhackl’s forecheck to make it 2-1 at 18:06 of the first period but the Islanders didn’t clinch it until Bailey’s empty-net goal with 37.7 seconds remaining.
The Islanders’ on-ice celebration was happy, naturally, but low key. Valtteri Filppula was the first to hug Lehner and Scott Mayfield, who made a kick save in the crease on Guentzel’s potential power-play equalizer at 6:18 of the third period, gave out high-fives.
But the Islanders still have work to do and now some injury questions.
The Islanders lost Boychuk after he took defenseman Marcus Pettersson’s slap shot off his left leg at 6:59 of the second period. Clutterbuck followed him to the room at 18:48 of the second period, seconds after checking Bryan Rust. He briefly returned to the bench in the third period but did not take a shift.
Trotz said he had no update on either player.