UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- They are a young and impressionable bunch, these New York Islanders.
Most are taking their first dip into a best-of-seven acid bath that is the Stanley Cup playoffs, and if they had been convinced early that they should be content to make a token appearance and simply get a feel for hockey at this time of year, perhaps they would be investigating offseason travel plans today.
But give them reason to believe they not only belong, but deserve to hang around for a while -- a feeling the Penguins surely have instilled in the past two games of their opening-round Eastern Conference playoff series -- and it just might happen.
OK, the likelihood of that was downgraded considerably when Chris Kunitz stuck a shot behind Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov at 8:44 of overtime Sunday at Nassau Coliseum to give the Penguins a 5-4 victory and a 2-1 lead in the series, but the Penguins have done very little through three games to persuade New York it is outclassed or overmatched.
Perhaps that point will be made when -- or if -- the Penguins perform to something approaching their potential, which hasn't happened for an extended stretch through the first three games.
"We have to play better," defenseman Paul Martin said. "We can definitely play better."
In fairness, the Penguins turned in quality work at times in Game 3.
Their power play converted 3 of 5 chances, including the goal that ended the game, and their penalty-killers were 3 for 3. They showed commendable resilience by running off four unanswered goals after tumbling into a two-goal hole in the first six minutes.
The Islanders put them on their heels -- and almost on their back -- shortly after the game started, getting goals from Matt Moulson at 1:43 and Casey Cizikas at 5:41, by which time the noise level at the Coliseum threatened to shake loose a few girders.
The Penguins insisted they were fully prepared for an emotional early surge by New York, but nothing they did in the first half of the opening period proved it.
"They definitely fed off the crowd and came out with a lot more intensity than we did," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "With our experience, that's inexcusable."
Might have been fatal, too, except that in a span of 34 seconds, Islanders defensemen Mark Streit and Travis Hamonic were penalized. And in a span of 19 seconds, Jarome Iginla and Kunitz beat Nabokov to tie the score.
Then, with one minute to go before the intermission, Pascal Dupuis scored his third of the series, and the Penguins had an utterly improbable -- and not necessarily deserved -- 3-2 lead.
"We did a great job of hanging in there, being able to get the momentum back in our favor," Iginla said.
Defenseman Douglas Murray seemed to wring any remaining suspense from the outcome when he scored a goal at 17:10 of the second, but the Penguins power play figured in another goal at 5:31 of the third -- an Islanders goal.
The Penguins seemed more intent on killing a hooking minor to New York's Brian Strait than the Islanders were, and their passive approach led to Kyle Okposo slipping behind their point men and beating goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on a short-handed breakaway.
"We were a little sloppy on the power play," forward Craig Adams said. "And they got right back into it."
John Tavares completed the comeback less than five minutes later, scoring from inside the right circle. At that point, a game that seemed all but officially over when the third period began was ticketed for overtime.
The Penguins might have been lucky that it got that far, considering the Islanders' 13-3 edge in shots in the third.
"We got more on the defensive-minded side of it and weren't able to play [in] the offensive zone and stem the tide that way," Bylsma said.
They regained their equilibrium during the intermission, though, and after Strait was sent off for a marginal holding penalty on Crosby -- "There were a lot worse than that [that weren't called]," Tavares said -- Kunitz gave the Penguins yet another lead.
One that, no doubt to their great relief, they didn't have to do defend since it ended the game.
There almost certainly will be other leads in other games, though, and the Penguins might want to brush up a bit on how to protect them.
"We think we can play better," Bylsma said. "And that's not just with the lead or without the lead."
Game 4 Tuesday might be a good time to start, because no matter how deflating their Game 3 loss was for the Islanders, they have been given just cause to believe they belong in this series.
And can win it.
"We proved it to ourselves we can play with them," Okposo said. "We can take it to them."
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published May 5, 2013 8:00 PM