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Islanders vs. Penguins: A Series for the Ages

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For the Islander fan, the lockout was more of a godsend than an inconvenience. Since 2007, the word “playoffs” was out of the Islander fans’ vocabularies. But, this season, that all changed, as the 8th place New York Islanders made a first round appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, something which the team hadn’t done since 2007.
Nassau Coliseum was filled to the brim with screaming fans, creating an atmosphere that was, “Spine-chilling,” as Travis Hamonic called it. “As a season ticket holder for all sixteen years of my life, it was an experience like no other,” said longtime Islanders fan Aaron Schuckman, of Long Island, New York. Aaron witnessed the last Islanders home victory in 2002, and vividly remembers the infamous penalty shot by former Islanders forward, Shawn Bates. “Everyone was going crazy when he scored. I will never forget my dad picking me up as I waved the rally towel, which is still hanging in my room,” he said.

What makes this year so memorable isn’t just the fact that the team made the playoffs for the first time in 6 years. It isn’t the fact that John Tavares played his first playoff series in an Islanders uniform, and is now a Hart Trophy candidate. It is the fact that the rebuild is arguably over. Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, John Tavares, Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald, Frans Nielsen, Matt Martin, Jesse Joensuu, Casey Cizikas, and David Ullstrom, all were drafted by the Islanders, and finally saw playoff hockey ice time this season. For any other NHL fan, or fan of any other team, those names are almost like a foreign language. For the Islander fan, however, these are the names of idols. A team where half the squad hadn’t had a single NHL playoff game under his belt made a pretty impressive run in the first round against

the Eastern Conference All Star Team, or as the NHL calls them, The Pittsburgh Penguins.

It started with the eye-opening game one. Pittsburgh had the Consol Energy Center filled to capacity as their Penguins faced the Islanders in the postseason for the first time since 1993. With Sidney Crosby still sitting because of the slapshot he took to the face, the Islanders’ fanbase had a, “we can do this” mentality. That mentality, however, wasn’t evident in their beloved team. The Islanders took a brutal 5-0 beating, and Nabokov looked like last year’s Fleury, forcing him to be pulled. The typical Islander fan reaction, “at least they made the playoffs.” However, the Islanders weren’t ready to turtle just yet.

Game two, the Islanders started the same way the left off, allowing two quick un-answered goals  within the first five minutes of the game, heading to the dressing room down, 3-1. After some words from their coaching staff, a new team came out to start the second period. Five minutes into the second period, Kyle Okposo, a former first round draft pick, dropped the gloves with Matt Niskanen, leaving him bleeding as he left the ice. From that point forward, it was all Islanders as Matt Martin and Colin McDonald scored their first playoff goals, leaving the ice tied with Pittsburgh at 3. Period three was a battle that this Islanders team had never participated in before. After 10 minutes of scoreless, third period, playoff hockey, the Islanders looked like the better team. They were getting to the pucks in the corners, winning battles against the boards, and winning in the faceoff circle. All the hardwork would pay off just over 12 minutes into the period, as poetic justice would be served when Kyle Okposo put in what later proved to be the first Islanders playoff GWG since 2007.

Game three marked history, as it was the long-awaited, first playoff game at Nassau Coliseum since 2007, and the barn was rocking like it never rocked before. Fans went wild as the Islanders came onto the ice for warm-ups to their ever so appropriate anthem, “Started From The Bottom” by Drake. At the drop of the puck, all the momentum was quickly shifted to the blue and orange as Matt Moulson put the puck past Fleury after a minute and a half of play, only to be followed by a Casey Cizikas goal at the 5:41 mark, making it 2-0 Islanders after 10 minutes of play. The Penguins came fighting back in the first, as Jerome Iginla and Chris Kunitz netted power play goals, on two questionable calls, as the crowd started to show their frustration through a series of chants, not appropriate for this page. (But hey, that’s hockey) Pascal Dupuis would net one past Nabokov, who struggled in the series, making the score 3-2 Penguins, after 20 minutes of hockey on Long Island. The second period was quieter than the first, with the fans still stunned from the officiating, and the efficiency of the Penguins power play unit. Douglas Murray would put one in the net, making the score 4-2 Penguins, through 2 periods. The Islanders came out on the ice looking confident, despite being down by two goals heading into the third period. The hometown crowd was still behind them, and they knew what had to be done. First, it was Kyle Okposo, who picked up a pass from Frans Nielsen, to get a breakaway where he finished strong with a top shelf snipe past Fleury. With that, the ice tilted 90 degrees towards Fleury. The Islanders would outshoot the Penguins, 13-3 in the third, with the absolutely ear-splitting noise of the Islander fans behind them. John Tavares, with half a period left to play, received a pass from Islanders first rounder, Josh Bailey, and took a shot that beamed past Fleury to tie the game. I was surprised the Coliseum roof was left intact, for the crowd went absolutely, for lack of better term, bonkers, the minute Tavares looked up into the stands. The game would go to OT. A little over eight minutes into the overtime period, Brian Streit “held” Sidney Crosby, to put Pittsburgh on the power play for the fifth time in the game. Exactly 33 seconds later, Chris Kunitz would silence the arena, as he put in the overtime game winner. The ice was littered with various items from rally towels to beer bottles, as the Islanders’ fans erupted in anger over a call that, quite frankly, was a horrendous display of refereeing.

The playoff atmosphere would return, however, as the Islanders prepared for game four at the loud coliseum. The Islanders fans sported signs that read, “NO DIVING” in response to the poor call that lead to the loss in game three. The fans seemed to continue where they left off, as the , “let’s go Islanders” chants filled Nassau Coliseum, as the puck dropped for game four. At the 14:05 mark hit, Brian Strait made up for his “penalty” that put the Penguins on a game winning power play, as he netted the first Islanders goal. The celebration was short, as the Penguins came back to have James Neal put the tying goal past Nabokov, making it a tied hockey game heading into the second. The captain, Mark Streit, came firing back, as he netted a power play goal, to put the Islanders back on top, with lots of time remaining in the second. Like déjà vu, the Penguins came back to tie it on an Evgeni Malkin wrist shot less than a minute after Streit’s go-ahead goal. Brendan Sutter would then give the Penguins their first lead of the game, only to be stripped away by Brad Boyes’ goal to tie it, as the horn sounded marking the end of 40 minutes of hockey. The Penguins would strike first in the third, as Pascal Dupuis netted his fourth goal of the postseason, only 41 seconds into the third. Mark Streit would then answer, making the game tied with 15 minutes left to play. John Tavares, gets his own rebound and scores to put the Islanders on top again with half a period left to play. As the play came back to the Islanders’ net, Casey Cizikas and Brendan Morrow were battling down low, a normal play in hockey. The normalcy left the door, however, when the puck left the Islanders’ defensive zone, and Cizikas fell after Morrow hit him in that battle. The play got out of hand as Brendan Morrow slammed Cizikas’ face into the ice three or four times, as the official skated over, watched, and did nothing. The no-call didn’t seem to bother Cizikas though, as he would later score, to seal the deal in the Islanders’ first home playoff victory, since 2002.

Game five was back at the Consol Energy Center, in front of a rowdy Pittsburgh crowd. As soon as the second period started, the game was over. The Islanders were slow, sluggish, weak and did not look like the same team that tied the series back on Long Island, just two nights before. Tyler Kennedy, Doulas Murray, and Sidney Crosby all scored in that second period. The third wasn’t any better for the struggling Islander team, as Kris Letang put the final puck past Nabokov, forcing Capuano to pull the veteran goalie for the second time in the series. The Penguins would take game five, 4-0.

The Island was rocking once more as game six was underway at Nassau Coliseum. Nabokov was in net for the isles and Vokoun was in net coming off the shutout in game five. John Tavares struck first for the Islanders, only to be followed by a Jerome Iginla tying goal minutes later. Just before the horn, Colin Mcdonald netted his second goal of the series, making it 2-1 Islanders. Despite being outshot 16-6, the Penguins tied the game off a goal from the red-hot Pascal Dupuis, making it a tied game heading into the third period. Keith Aucoin dished a beautiful assist to Michael Grabner early in the third, making it 3-2 with lots of play left in the third. Paul Martin would then net a tying goal with six minutes left in regulation, forcing the game to overtime. The Islanders would put three shots on net in overtime, but it all ended when Brooks Orpik scored the OT game winner, bringing the series to a close.

To me, the above is more of a heartwarming story than a recap of a series. The Islanders played outstanding hockey and exceeded the expectations of the experts in the hockey world. The highlight of the series, if not the entire season, was the crowd, still on their feet, chanting to the team they love, long after game six came to a close. Hockey is back on Long Island, and that is all that should matter to the Islander fan.

With that , something has to be said about the officiating. The only instance I am pertaining to is the Brendan Morrow, head bashing of Casey Cizikas. From where I was sitting (right behind the Islanders net) the play was a lot more vicious than on TV. The referee literally skated over and did nothing as Cizikas’ head was being implanted onto the playing surface. To me, that is absolutely disgusting. It is an embarrassment to the league, the Penguins, and the NHL Officials Association. I think it is a travesty to the game of hockey, that the official that skated over to watch a beating, is still officiating games in the NHL.

As a whole, the Islanders made that push that the fans had waited six long years for. The Islanders are a playoff team again, and I, along with Long Island, cannot wait to see what comes next.