Entering Friday night’s contest against the Islanders at Nassau County Coliseum, the Penguins had two goals. First and foremost, they needed a victory to clinch home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs and keep the heat on the Atlantic-Division leading Flyers.
The second goal was less tangible but equally important. The Pens were determined to stand up to the Islanders, who resorted to 1970s-style thuggery the last time the teams met.
In an effort to add some mustard to the lineup, coach Dan Bylsma sat out Chris Conner and Matt Niskanen in favor of sluggers Eric Godard and Deryk Engelland. The moves paid off handsomely as the reinforced Pens battled past the plucky Islanders 4-3 in a shootout to earn two huge points.
As if scripted, the Penguins’ musclemen played a key role. Nine minutes into the first period Mike Rupp won a faceoff in the New York zone and pushed the puck to Godard, who was stationed along the left wing boards. Seeing action for the first time since the brawl-filled encounter with the Islanders on February 11, the Pens’ enforcer bulled his way to the corner and dished a pass into the slot. Rupp and Craig Adams poked at the rubber before “Ruppster” fired it past New York goalie Al Montoya.
On the ensuing draw Godard dropped the mitts with Islanders heavyweight Trevor Gillies. Although the rugged New Yorker earned a decision, a message was sent. To make sure it was received, Arron Asham challenged penalty king Zenon Konopka to a go at the 11:57 mark.
Following the fisticuffs the teams treated the 16,250 fans in attendance to some good old-fashioned hockey. The Pens widened their advantage to 2-0 at 11:11 of the second period on a power-play goal by sudden scoring sensation Zbynek Michalek. But Blake Comeau sliced the lead in half four minutes later following a series of sparkling saves by Marc-Andre Fleury.
New York knotted the score midway through the final frame thanks to a superb individual effort by Michael Grabner. The speedy Austrian flew down the left side of the Penguins’ zone, circled behind the cage and fed a cross-crease pass to Comeau, who banged his 24th goal of the season (and second of the night) into a wide-open net.
Minutes later the Pens responded with an equally pretty tally. Working the give-and-go to perfection, Asham sprang Rupp loose in the Islanders’ end. The big forward rambled to the net and slipped a beautiful backhand pass to Mark Letestu, who snapped the puck past Montoya.
After having a potential game-tying goal by Matt Moulson disallowed, the Islanders knotted the score with 35 seconds left on a long-range missile by defenseman Travis Hamonic. Following a scoreless overtime, the contest went to a shootout.
While Montoya stopped the Pens first two shooters–Kris Letang and Alexei Kovalev–Fleury was his usual impeccable self, denying attempts by P.A. Parenteau, John Tavares and Comeau. With the game cradled on his stick blade, Chris Kunitz deked Montoya with a head and shoulder fake and pushed the puck between the rookie’s pads for the game winner.
The Penguins and Philadelphia each have 104 points … Philly holds the edge in tiebreakers … The Pens clinched home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs … Tough guys Rupp, Godard, Asham and Adams combined for five points against the Islanders … Kris Letang picked up his 50th point of the season with an assist on Michalek’s goal … James Neal left the game at 5:15 of the second period with an unspecified injury.
The Penguins close out the regular season on Sunday with a matinee matchup against Atlanta at Philips Arena. The Pens lead the season series 3-0.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and colorful history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more. A must have for any true Penguins fan.