Islanders top Pens, take 3-0 series lead
PITTSBURGH — The New York Islanders don’t play a particularly sexy brandy of hockey. They forecheck. They back-check. They block shots and take few risks, more focused on fundamentals than flash.
It’s a style designed to frustrate opponents regardless of pedigree, one that has them on the cusp of just their second playoff series win in more than a quarter-century.
Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson scored 62 seconds apart in the first period to quickly erase a rare deficit, Robin Lehner stopped 25 shots and the Islanders moved within one victory of finishing off Sidney Crosby and the rest of the frustrated Pittsburgh Penguins with a 4-1 win on Sunday to take a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
It’s heady territory for a franchise that’s advanced past the first round just once since 1993. Yet the Islanders certainly look like they belong on the big stage. They’ve outscored Pittsburgh 11-5 through three games and have trailed for less than four minutes through nine-plus periods against a team that began the playoffs looking to capture its third Stanley Cup in four years, a dream that’s all but vanished.
“We kind of did our best to play simple hockey and really just grind it out a little bit,” said New York forward Anders Lee, whose empty-net goal with 1:28 to go pushed the Islanders to the cusp of an unlikely sweep.
It’s what the Islanders do.
While they lack Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower, they’ve made up for it with depth and resiliency. Rather than get rattled after Garrett Wilson gave the Penguins just their second lead of the series when he redirected a point shot by Lehner just past the midway point of the first period, the Islanders responded immediately.
Eberle beat Matt Murray short side from just above the goal line 28 seconds after Wilson’s score to tie the game and Nelson finished off a 2-on-1 to put New York in front to stay just over a minute later. Lehner withstood a series of pushes by the Penguins, and the Islanders counterpunched brilliantly in the third period behind goals from Leo Komarov and Lee to pull away.
“Playoffs are all about momentum,” said Eberle, who has three goals in three games. “When you can take some team’s momentum away and just continue to build yours, it’s key.”
Pittsburgh needs a win in Game 4 on Tuesday to avoid being swept for the first time since the 2013 Eastern Conference finals against Boston.
“You’ve got to find ways to score goals this time of year,” Crosby said. “It’s not easy but you’ve got to find a way to do it and obviously we haven’t done a good job of it through the first three games.”
BLUE JACKETS 3, LIGHTNING 1: The Columbus Blue Jackets extended their postseason mastery of the Tampa Bay Lightning, beating the NHL’s best team 3-1 on Sunday night and moving to within a game of sweeping the playoff series.
Matt Duchene, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Cam Atkinson scored, and Sergei Bobrovsky fended off a desperate third-period charge to finish with 30 saves for the Blue Jackets, who took a 3-0 lead in the best-f-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal. Columbus will try to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history in Game 4 at home Tuesday night.
Without their top scorer, the suspended Nikita Kucherov, and injured defenseman Victor Hedman, the Lightning, who finished with a league-best 62 wins, couldn’t find any momentum until late in the final period, and then Bobrovsky rose to the challenge.
Columbus has commanded the series since they fell behind 3-0 in the opening period of Game 1, only to rally to win that one 4-3. They pummeled the Lightning 5-1 in Game 2, and solidly outplayed them for all but a few minutes on Sunday.
The Lightning are facing an unexpected quick elimination. Teams have come back from 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series on just four previous occasions. The last time was in 2014, when the Los Angeles Kings dug out of the hole in the opening series against San Jose and eventually won the Stanley Cup.
Last season, the Blue Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over Washington, only to drop four straight, three of them in Columbus.
JETS 6, BLUES 3: Kyle Connor scored twice, Patrik Laine had a goal and an assist, and the Winnipeg Jets beat the St. Louis Blues 6-3 on Sunday night to climb back into their first-round playoff series.
Winnipeg dropped the first two games by one goal, but got back on track in St. Louis. Kevin Hayes, Brandon Tanev and Dustin Byfuglien also scored, and Connor Hellebuyck made 25 saves.
Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night in St. Louis.