By Steve Silverman
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The New York Islanders have done a lot more than make the No.1 vs. No. 8 series interesting in the Eastern Conference.
They have put the fear of God in the Pittsburgh Penguins. They can change that fear into a full-fledged panic if they can beat the Penguins in Game 5 on Thursday night and take a 3-2 lead in the series.
The Islanders have a lot going for them, and perhaps the biggest factor is the Penguins’ angst-ridden self-doubt.
The Penguins were the dominant team in the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season. They held that position even though Sidney Crosby missed the last 12 games of the 48-game schedule with a broken jaw.
But the Penguins were bounced from last year’s playoffs in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers. The big reason for that defeat was poor play by the Penguins’ defense and abominable play by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Through four games against the Islanders, the Penguins have been dogged by poor play by the defense and another horror show by Fleury in goal.
Fleury was awful in the Islanders’ 6-4 victory in Game 4, but it was not all his fault. The Islanders outskated, outworked and outplayed the Penguins at every level in that game.
When John Tavares, Kyle Okposo or Casey Cizikas wanted to skate behind the goal line in Gretzky’s office, they were given complete freedom to do so by the Penguins’ defense.
Nobody bothered them and they had the hockey equivalent of all day to find open teammates and make plays.
If the Penguins don’t pay more attention to the Islanders in that area, it won’t matter who Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has in goal.
At the start of Game 5, Tomas Vokoun will be in net for the Penguins. He is a competent backup, and if he is not afflicted with the same playoffitis that is choking Fleury, he should be fairly competent.
A home crowd in Pittsburgh along with a team that knows how to rebound and regroup is likely to make for a much tougher opponent.
The Islanders should know this going in. While the Islanders outplayed the Penguins twice at the Nassau Coliseum, they won just one of those games. This series could be 3-1 Islanders at this point.
But the Islanders have no reason to look back and think about what might have been. They are playing exceptional hockey and they have been able to make a very good and perhaps great team doubt itself.
They must continue to do the same thing as the series resumes in Pittsburgh. A change in venue cannot mean a change in attitude, not if the Islanders want to win this series.
At this point, it is not about gaining respect. The Islanders have already done that. It’s about winning.
The Islanders are not going to look ahead because that’s against hockey’s unwritten laws. But sportswriters don’t have to be saddled with such blinders.
Why can’t the Islanders follow the same path that the Los Angeles Kings took last year when they rose from eighth in the Western Conference and then raised the Stanley Cup?
If you look at the Eastern Conference, the Islanders are taking on the best team. If they find a way to outlast the Penguins, they don’t have to be afraid of any future competitors.
It might be tough to win in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks or Kings, but there are no superior teams on the Islanders’ side of the draw.
The Islanders have the advantage as their first-round series resumes in Pittsburgh. It’s time to press that advantage hard.
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