All things considered, the New York Islanders got the split they needed to get while in Pittsburgh, but a flat Game 2 performance on Tuesday night saw the Penguins tie up their Eastern Division first-round series at one game apiece with a 2-1 victory at PPG Paints Arena.
First-period goals from Bryan Rust and Jeff Carter proved to be the difference, overshadowing Semyon Varlamov’s strong return to net after missing Game 1 with an injury. The veteran netminder who took the crease back over for Ilya Sorokin made 43 saves — but it was an early gaffe that had the Islanders playing catchup from the get-go.
A pair of whiffs just 3:22 into the game allowed the Penguins to take the lead. At the Islanders blue line, defenseman Ryan Pulock missed on a cross-ice pass leading to an easy steal for Rust, who threw a tame wrister that Varlamov simply missed with his glove — not nearly the kind of start the netminder would have wanted after that extended absence.
“He just missed the puck,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought he was excellent after the first goal. I thought he was moving well, he was crisp. We just wanted the first goal back.”
Another lapse from Pulock allowed the Penguins to double their lead with 6:53 left in the first when he lost Jeff Carter, who was able to glide in between the defense and sneak a low shot through the five-hole of Varlamov.
“There were some plays we went brain-dead a little bit,” Trotz said. “Some simple plays that we didn’t execute and we spent more time in our zone because of it.”
While the Islanders are normally a heinous second-period team, they were sparked by a pair of strong penalty kills — both off Oliver Wahlstrom infractions — to find their footing. With 5:16 to go in the frame, Josh Bailey got the Islanders on the board with a weaving move through the Penguins defense before lasering a backhander over the glove hand of Tristan Jarry.
An inability to find a consistent push found little opportunities to break through for an equalizer, but the Islanders found a golden opportunity with 1:28 remaining when Rust closed his hand on the puck and threw it out of his zone for a penalty.
With Varlamov pulled, the Islanders had a 6-on-4 advantage, but could not generate a grade-A chance to legitimately challenge Jarry’s goal.
The Penguins’ young goalie who showed a weakness on his high glove side in Game 1 was much more solid in Game 2 with 35 saves — but the Islanders’ attack left plenty to be desired in terms of ferocity.
“We didn’t get enough push in the third which was disappointing,” Trotz said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the Penguins. They played well in the third and deserved the victory.”
The series shifts to the Nassau Coliseum for Game 3 on Thursday night.
“We just move forward,” Bailey said. “This can always be a bit of a chess match switching things here and there. We got one win, we would’ve liked two, but we move forward and get ready for a big game on our ice.”