Enticed into making mistake after costly mistake by a disciplined opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins are one loss from leaving the playoffs in a stunning first-round sweep.
Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson scored 62 seconds apart in the first period, leading the New York Islanders to a 4-1 victory Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins have lost the first three games of the series. The Islanders will have a chance to complete the sweep in Game 4 Tuesday night.
“We all care. We want to win,” winger Phil Kessel said. “We’ll just try to get the next one and move on from there.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and a wide sampling of players all sounded the same mantra in the days leading up to the series. They would need to be patient and smart against a structured, opportunistic Islanders team. They couldn’t try to force things to create offense.
In each of the first three games, the Penguins occasionally failed to stick to that philosophy, and it led to a tiebreaking goal for the Islanders.
In the first two games, turnovers by Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin teed it up for the Islanders. In the first period of Game 3, it was an ill-advised pinch from defenseman Justin Schultz.
With Sidney Crosby fighting for a loose puck just inside the offensive blue line, Schultz stepped up from the left point to join the battle. The Islanders quickly made him pay for that decision, taking off on a two-on-one. Nelson kept the puck himself and beat goalie Matt Murray from the right wing to make it 2-1 and give the Islanders the lead for good.
“It’s just a bad play by me,” Schultz said. “I can’t be pinching there. That one’s on me.”
Sullivan was at a loss to explain why the Penguins keep walking into the traps the Islanders have set for them.
“I’m not sure I have an answer for that,” he said. “Our guys, they care. They want to win, and they understand what it takes. So I’m not going to sit here and say they’re not buying in. It becomes a game of mistakes sometimes. We’ve just got to do a better job limiting some of the ones that we’re making.”
Matt Cullen has a theory about why it keeps happening. A team can’t spend its time worrying about avoiding mistakes. It has to be focused on forcing its opponent into trouble.
“I don’t know that we’ve done a good enough job of applying enough pressure and making things hard on them,” he said.
Midway through the first period, the Penguins took their second lead of the series when Garrett Wilson used a waist-high tip to deflect in a Marcus Pettersson point shot to make it 1-0.
It was one of two goals the Penguins have managed against a suffocating Islanders defense over the last six periods.
“There’s not a lot of risk associated with the Islanders’ game,” Sullivan said. “They’ve got numbers back. They’ve got a defense-first mentality. That’s been their identity all year. That’s what’s brought them success.
“We know what we’re up against. We know what the challenge is. We’ve talked about it since before the series started. Our identity is a little bit different, but having said that, we have to have more a discipline associated with our game in the critical areas of the rink.”
The lead lasted 28 seconds. Eberle took a cross-ice pass from Ryan Pulock at the bottom of the left faceoff circle and hit the top-left corner of the net that Murray left open for him.
The Islanders smothered the Penguins in the third period, eventually breaking it open on a Leo Komarov goal with less than 10 minutes left.
“Just move on. That’s all you can do,” Schultz said. “Move on and get ready for the next game and focus on that.”