The New York Islanders could not have come up with a better response following a heartbreaker on Thursday, beating down the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 in Game 4 of the Eastern Division first round to tie the series at two games apiece.
Holding a 2-0 lead entering the third period, Oliver Wahlstrom and Jordan Eberle scored 24 seconds apart to put the Islanders out of sight in front of a lively and boisterous 6,300 fans at Nassau Coliseum.
To backstop the effort was rookie goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who has now picked up both wins this series after head coach Barry Trotz opted to start veteran Semyon Varlamov for Games 2 and 3 — both losses.
Sorokin posted 29 saves on the day in another masterful showing, despite it being just his second-ever postseason start.
“Finally, I saw supporters during a game,” Sorokin said. “I was very excited because we played for fans. When you hear how loud it is, you feel the energy. I just enjoy the game and enjoy the moment.”
As anticipated, the Islanders put together their strongest start to a game of the postseason, controlling play in a matter they had only done so in the latter stages of previous playoff outings when playing from behind — an obvious byproduct of sitting in a series deficit.
However, they had no goals to show for it as the first period ended scoreless. It was the first time this series that the opening 20 minutes didn’t feature a goal and the first time since Game 1 that the Islanders were not playing catch-up.
“I thought we came out with a really good mindset,” Trotz said. “I’ll tell you what, what a great atmosphere. The crowd gave us some juice tonight, they were fantastic… We got off to a better start, there wasn’t much out there in the first period. In the second period we got some traction and scored the first goal, which was key for us.”
Upon a steady application of pressure, the Islanders finally broke through 8:07 into the second period when Josh Bailey received a pass from behind the net from Nelson and snuck a wrister through Jarry — who was playing unusually deep in his goal given the situation, though Anthony Beauvillier’s pesky presence and battle with Kris Letang didn’t give the Penguins’ netminder much freedom to roam.
Sorokin played his part in keeping things scoreless until then, making a notable save on Sidney Crosby, who cut across the rookie’s goal alone. But the star had nowhere to shoot, as Sorokin flashed across his crease to keep up with every one of Crosby’s strides.
“The big characteristic is his quickness, laterally side-to-side, some of the saves he’s made are amazing,” Eberle said. “To have poise and his confidence back there, just his calmness, he’s made big saves for us and he’s done it all year.”
With 5:09 remaining in the period — seconds after Mathew Barzal passed up a pair of Grade-A opportunities, Ryan Pulock managed to rifle a slapshot from atop the left circle through the legs of Jarry to double the Islanders’ lead.
Nervy moments started the third period for the Islanders when Scott Mayfield was called for a hold on Crosby — though Crosby was the one who hauled the Islanders’ defenseman down to the ice while falling.
But the Penguins squandered the opportunity as a tripping penalty on Jason Zucker and an interference penalty on Kris Letang gave the Islanders a 4-on-3 man advantage, which they took full advantage of.
Wahlstrom’s wrister from the right circle was saved by Jarry, but defenseman Teddy Blueger knocked the puck into his own goal just 6:04 into the third.
Twenty-four seconds later, the first line came to life for the first time in the series through the last remaining power-play. From the left goal line, Barzal beamed a pass to a wide-open Eberle, who wristed home his first goal of the postseason.
It was Barzal’s second assist of the 24-second span, giving him 21 postseason helpers in his 34th career playoff game. He became just the fifth Islander in franchise history to record 20 playoff assists in 34 games or fewer, joining Denis Potvin (27 games), Jude Drouin (29), Butch Goring (31), and Bryan Trottier (34).
“It’s a critical moment in the game,” Barzal said. “If they kill that off, they have a lot of life. Two huge goals to put the game away. That’s a crucial moment, that was big by our power play.”
With 2:35 remaining, Zach Aston-Reese poked home a loose puck in front of Sorokin to spoil the rookie’s shutout bid. He would have been just the second goalie in franchise history to pitch a shutout in the playoffs, joining Chico Resch in Game 7 of the Islanders’ 1975 miracle comeback from 3-0 down against the Penguins.
“Ilya, when he was called upon, looked really sharp,” Trotz said. “It was a shame we gave up a goal at the end.”
Regardless, the Islanders are on equal terms heading into Game 5 in Pittsburgh, which is set for Monday night.
“Whatever we did tonight, [the Penguins have] probably already forgotten about it and they’ll be fresh for Game 5,” Barzal said. “We’ve been in a few playoff series so we have a feel of where our heads need to be at and where our focus needs to be at. We’ll enjoy it tonight and when we leave the rink, it’s tied and a three-game series.”