The NHL is a hard league, the East is a hard division, and this was a hard first-round series, as Islanders head coach Barry Trotz likes to put it.
But the Islanders are now one of two teams still standing in the loaded East, after a 5-3 win over the Penguins on Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum punched their ticket to the second round of the playoffs.
It was the first series-clinching win for the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum in 28 years.
The fourth-seeded Isles will face the third-seeded Boston Bruins, who have been patiently waiting since Sunday, when they finished off the Capitals in five games. The series — er, division finals? — will likely begin this weekend.
All but one of the Islanders’ four wins in this six-game series saw the team grind through every lead change, every tie score and every momentum swing the Penguins built. Wednesday night was no different.
“The playoffs are hard enough,” Trotz said after the win. “But when you have to chase the game, it’s a grind mentally. The next mistake maybe puts you in such a hole that you might not be able to dig out. It is a challenge. We were down in this series two games to one, and we found a way to win.
“We had to come from behind, we haven’t led this series a whole lot. That is a mental grind for the group, but it tells me a lot about them because they just stuck with it.”
Both teams exchanged two goals in an eventful first 20 minutes, but the Isles owned the second period. They got off to one of their only-a-goal-will-wake-us-up starts in each period, which carried over from the first when Penguins center Jeff Carter scored roughly 90 seconds after puck drop, with Pittsburgh going up 3-2 at 1:53 of the middle frame.
But the Islanders, as they did throughout the series, didn’t shy away from the challenge. They attacked it head on.
A sequence of brilliant passing from the Islanders led to Josh Bailey teeing up Brock Nelson at the left post for his first of two goals in the second period to knot the game 3-3. Thirteen seconds later, Ryan Pulock’s slap shot off a faceoff win blew past Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry for the Islanders’ first lead of the night.
The two scores matched the Isles’ franchise playoff record for fastest two goals in a game.
The taunts of Jarry from the 9,000 fans at the Coliseum came early and often, but they intensified after the Islanders took the lead. It led to Nelson’s soft shot bouncing between Jarry’s pads at 11:34 of the second for the 5-3 lead.
Rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin, who finished with 34 saves on 37 shots to improve to 4-0 this series, denied Evgeni Malkin on the breakaway toward the end of the period to protect the two-goal lead.
Both teams exchanged two scoreboard blows in the first period, with the Penguins striking first, but the Isles had an answer each time.
“It’s the mindset we have, it’s the leadership that we have in the room” said Anthony Beauvillier, who beat Penguins star Sidney Crosby to the slot for a shot that made it a 1-1 game. “One goal is not necessarily going to win the game, so we want to stick with it and stick to a plan.
“It’s playoffs, there’s going to be lows, there’s going to be ups, and just got to fight through it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a goal, or you lose a game, you’re down two or whatever it is. I think there’s lots of character in this room and we just found a way to get it done.”