Collier: A win is a win, but that's about it


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UNIONDALE, N.Y.

So what was that exactly, Stinko de Mayo?

Volumes of analysis and explanation, much of it quasi-plausible, already has been offered for the way the Penguins performed Sunday in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal, but there remains next to no earthly reason for how they conjured a 5-4 overtime victory on a day they were fairly dreadful.

They kicked away a two-goal lead for the second game in a row, allowed the feverish Islanders to outshoot them, outhit them and steal their hockey puck an astounding 19 times (the Penguins stole six), and yet they lead this series, 2-1.

Had it not been for their crackling power play and a series of exquisite contributions from seriously uncelebrated sources, Dan Bylsma's team would be staggering toward the exits of this postseason.

"It wasn't ideal," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said of the way the Islanders again came at him in waves. "But it's what we expect; they're a fast team. They come back at us fast. Not ideal, but we still got those five goals. This game was a little crazy."

The Islanders fed off a frothing New York assembly in a building where the home team has now lost seven consecutive playoff games dating to 2002. It started with towel-waving and ended with bottle-throwing.

Chris Kunitz got the game-winner on the power play 8:44 into overtime, primarily because Sidney Crosby had drawn a dubious holding penalty on Brian Strait, who tried unsuccessfully to impede Sid's advance from the right corner.

"I don't normally comment on a call, I just hope they're consistent," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I can sit here and say what I want [but] it's not going to do any good. Mark Streit was called on one and at the other end of the ice, then on the same play, and there was no call.

"It's not an excuse for why we lost the hockey game. The game was quick, physically, but you always talk about special teams being important and that was the difference."

That's not what the bottle-throwers seemed to be saying, although I didn't speak with any of them directly. John Tavares, an Islanders sniper who sent the game into overtime with a 40-foot laser through Mark Eaton and Fleury with less than 10 minutes to play, didn't throw anything except an accurate observation about other on-ice violations that did not draw penalties: "We had a tough call in overtime. There were a lot worse than that."

But the worst elements of this affair were not orchestrated by the guys with the whistles. The worst elements were the consistently limp forecheck from a team as deep and talented offensively as these Penguins, and the equally consistent inability to impede the Islanders as they flew through the neutral zone.

If there were coaching adjustments relative to that chaos, nothing but more chaos ensued.

"I'm sure that coaching staff, and it's a good coaching staff, is going to make certain adjustments, but when you watch them play over the years, you know they have a system, too," Capuano said. "They want to chip pucks and get in on the forecheck. I'm sure they change every now and then, but they believe in that system and they've been very successful with it."

Funny though, on a team with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and accomplished scorers such as Kris Letang, Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, they're probably down, 2-1, today without Douglas "Crankshaft" Murray teeing up a Malkin pass and blistering it by Evgeni Nabokov for the fourth goal.

You gotta love Murray, who had earlier lifted himself off the seat of his pants in the neutral zone, chased Tavares down the slot and came away with the puck, but if you're surviving on No. 3's goal-scoring prowess, something isn't right.

"That's definitely not based on knowledge, that goal," said Murray about beating Nabokov, his former teammate with the San Jose Sharks. "I don't think I've seen him beaten high-glove in the five years we played together. I don't think this team is going to be leaning on me to score goals; I think then they might be in trouble."

The Penguins avoided serious trouble Sunday only by winning when they didn't deserve to, and they have no right to expect anything but another assault from the swift and mercurial New York forwards Tuesday night in Game 4.

"They're fast forwards playing a fast game at a fast pace," said Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was a minus-2 along with defensive mates Eaton and Simon Despres. "If they're gonna do that, we've just gotta take care of the puck and be in a good position. Our focus has to be in a better place with the puck, and at times we did it but at times we made mistakes."

Bylsma wasn't saying what the adjustments might be to the "half-court game" the Islanders have pinned on his team, but he knew the whole truth about Game 3 as well as the bottle-throwers.

"The Islanders played very well; they're very dangerous and they gave us a lot to handle," Bylsma said, reviewing the obvious. "Fortunately, we were able to come out with the win."

One translation of that: Fortunately, we didn't stink badly enough to put ourselves in a death struggle with the eighth-seeded team in these playoffs. At least not yet.

mobilehome - penguins - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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