PITTSBURGH - The Islanders, outside of their goaltender, didn't appear to get aggressive until the final eight minutes of the third period. But Friday night against their current chief rivals, it was about how the Isles finished, not how they started.
The Islanders pulled out a 4-3 win over the Penguins that seemed awfully unlikely through much of the game. But then again, weren't the Isles hapless and overmatched going into their playoff series against these same Penguins last May?
This game had some of the wild feel of that series, won in six crazy games by Pittsburgh. With Evgeni Nabokov making 39 saves, including a stop on Sidney Crosby's breakaway six minutes into the third, the Islanders were never really out of it despite being outshot 37-18 at the point that Nabokov made that save.
"The one thing we've done this season is, even when we're not playing our best, we've found a way to keep ourselves in it," said Josh Bailey, who dived to brush the puck over the goal line with 1:40 left in regulation to break a 3-3 tie and give the Islanders their third goal of the third period. "Nabby really made the difference and it was a good confidence-building win for us."
Frans Nielsen, who passed up a wide-open shot with Penguins rookie goaltender Jeff Zatkoff sprawled on the ice before feeding Bailey for the winner, had tied the score at 2-2 with a long-range redirection of Thomas Hickey's accurate pass with 7:14 to go. The Isles had started to turn up the energy level leading up to that goal, finally showing some mettle at even strength after a first period in which they took four minors and a second period in which they were outshot 20-10.
But Nielsen's goal was just the beginning. Little-used Penguin Deryk Engelland, playing as a forward instead of his usual defense role, charged to the net past Matt Donovan to bury a pass from Joe Vitale and restore Pittsburgh's lead 16 seconds after the Islanders tied it.
But the Isles kept coming. Radek Martinek kept a clearing pass in along the boards and flipped a blind, on-target pass to Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who had enough time to deke and backhand a shot through Zatkoff's pads. That goal came 53 seconds after the Isles gave the lead back.
Perhaps the Isles would have been content with one point, or a bonus point in overtime or a shootout. But Kyle Okposo and Bailey bulled through the neutral zone inside of two minutes to go. After Okposo fed Bailey in front, Zatkoff turned that shot aside, but Nielsen sent the puck back and Bailey fought through Chris Kunitz to bury the winner.
"We talked after the first two periods, we just weren't playing good hockey at all," said Hickey, who had his nose broken in a collision with Okposo in the first. He came back with a college-style cage and ended up a plus-3 with his first point of the season. "When we turned it on, we were able to accomplish a lot."
Thanks to Nabokov, who got the start despite allowing five goals in the overtime loss to Vancouver on Tuesday. He was sharp from the outset, allowing only a rebound goal to Jussi Jokinen in the first and a two-on-one goal to Crosby in the second.
"We fought through tonight," Nabokov said. "We got the two points."