Pens regain their edge, series control in Game 5
Tyler Kennedy breathed life into the Penguins — and their nervous fans — on Thursday.
His breakaway goal sparked a second-period surge that proved pivotal in a 4-0 win over the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins can end this Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series with a win in Game 6 at Nassau Coliseum beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“I want to win. I'm a positive guy,” said Kennedy, who had been a postseason healthy scratch — a first in his seven-year career with the Penguins — before rejoining the lineup Thursday. “Obviously it (stunk). But I'm a team player.”
Kennedy's team may play in the second round for the first time since 2010 because of his potentially series-changing goal.
Captain Sidney Crosby, who scored a beauty of his own in Game 5, called it “huge.”
Defenseman Kris Letang, who sprung Kennedy with a heads-up and spot-on stretch pass from deep in the defensive zone, said players “were a little bit on our heels.”
“It provided a spark,” Letang said of Kennedy's goal.
The goal broke a scoreless tie.
The goal was the first of three in about seven minutes.
The goal transformed a quiet arena into the Frenzy on Fifth Avenue.
Members of the 281st consecutive sellout crowd (18,636) rose as one, roaring to deafening levels while twirling white towels.
Those fans had been waiting for something to feel good about.
The previous palpable feel — nervousness boarding on anxiety — stemmed from the series having been tied, 2-2, and the recent history of three straight postseason losses to lower-seeded opponents.
Teams that win Game 5 of a best-of-seven series tied, 2-2, have won 80 percent of those series.
A strong second half to the first period by the Islanders had not helped matters. They outshot the Penguins, 14-2, over the final 11 minutes.
However, the Penguins found their form to open the second.
They won races to pucks, battles along the boards and positioning in the defensive zone.
Bylsma made the adjustments for which so many pundits had begged — Jarome Iginla to the right of Crosby, Chris Kunitz to the left of Evgeni Malkin — but the biggest change for the Penguins was their structure.
Forwards tracked deeper defensively to help defensemen, with centers — especially Malkin — veering below the hashes to clog space.
The Islanders had made a living by skating pucks into the slot, if not the crease, the three previous games.
That was not going to happen in Game 5.
“We knew we needed to get better and in all areas of the ice,” Kunitz said.
The Penguins won 64 percent of faceoffs, committed only eight giveaways and blocked 14 shots.
In fact, it was fine defensive work by center Brandon Sutter that contributed to Kennedy's goal.
Sutter won a defensive-zone battle of his own before shuffling the puck to Letang, who coolly observed an opening in the neutral zone, where Kennedy was waiting beyond the center-red line, behind the Islanders' defense.
Letang had struggled since Game 1.
His reads appeared off. His pass attempts were low-percentage. His decisions in the offensive zone were questionable.
Of course, he has set an elite standard, having been recognized this week as a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's top defenseman.
Letang looked the part on his pass to Kennedy.
“I had to put it in the air,” Letang said. “I saw him tapping his stick on the ice. He looked like he wanted it.”
Kennedy did want the puck.
What he did with it helped the Penguins get a win they needed.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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