Penguins escape New York, but must play better

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

The Pittsburgh Penguins did just enough to eliminate Kyle Okposo and the New York Islanders. (USATSI)
The Pittsburgh Penguins did just enough to eliminate Kyle Okposo and the New York Islanders. (USATSI)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are a pretty lucky team right now.

They're lucky they were able to win Saturday's Game 6 in New York, and they're lucky to be moving on to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs where they will take on the No. 7 seed Ottawa Senators starting next week.

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Brooks Orpik, perhaps the last player on the team anybody would have picked to score an overtime goal, punched Pittsburgh's ticket to the second round when he scored early in the first overtime period to give the Penguins a 4-3 win.

It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't exactly encouraging if you're a Penguins fan, but they did just enough to get the job done. Which is probably the only way you can describe the entire series from a Pittsburgh perspective.

Just enough.

For the second straight game a lot of the credit has to go to goalie Tomas Vokoun as he did everything he could to put the team on his back and keep them in the game as the Islanders were all over the Penguins for most of regulation, badly outshooting and outchancing them.

Again.

You could make a pretty convincing argument that New York was the better team, especially at even strength, in four of the six games in this series. The biggest difference in the end came down to Tomas Vokoun coming off the bench and playing sensational hockey in Games 5 and 6, and Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov being unable to stop anything for pretty much the entire series.

Pittsburgh was limited to just 21 shots on Saturday but somehow managed to get four goals. Two of the goals went in off the stick of Islanders players (Jarome Iginla's first period goal actually went in off of Brian Strait's stick, while Paul Martin's game-tying goal in the third was deflected in off the stick of Frans Nielsen).

But the story for the Islanders (and by extension the Penguins) was just how much Nabokov struggled. After his performance on Saturday, Nabokov finished the series with an awful .842 save percentage. That's the fourth-worst mark for a goalie that appeared in at least six playoff games since 1987.

There's really no way to sugarcoat that.

You can talk about the talent Pittsburgh has offensively, and the number of chances the Penguins generated (really, the scoring chances in the series were very even, if not slightly tilted in New York's favor), but that's just not a good enough performance. And it may have been the difference in the series and saved the Penguins from another first-round exit.

But they were able to escape, and they're moving on to second-round matchup with the Ottawa Senators, who present an entirely different sort of challenge.

While the Senators may not have the same type of speed and forechecking ability the Islanders have, a skill set that clearly overmatched the Penguins, they do have a goaltender (Craig Anderson) who probably isn't going to self destruct like Nabokov did in this series. Anderson, when healthy, was one of the best goalies in the NHL this season and has continued that play into the postseason and may have been the only reason the Senators so easily dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in round one.

The Penguins are still the top seed in the Eastern Conference and they still have some of the best players in the world.

But another effort like this in round two against a team with a better goaltender probably won't end with the same result.

 
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