PITTSBURGH -- A night that began with a familiar celebration of Sidney Crosby’s greatness and a reminder of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ embarrassment of riches ended shockingly with the New York Islanders reminding the favored Penguins that hard work sometimes trumps talent.
The plucky Islanders, down 3-1 before the first period was eight minutes old -- thanks to a pair of Crosby goals in his first game back after missing more than a month with a broken jaw, and another by former Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin -- refused to go silently into the night, ultimately squeezing past the Penguins by a 4-3 margin to even this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series at 1-1.
Game 3 is Sunday afternoon on Long Island.
Embarrassed 5-0 in Game 1 on Wednesday, the Islanders made good on pregame promises to be better, to work harder, to put more pressure on the Penguins.
Although there will no doubt be criticism of Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who misplayed the winner off the end boards with 7:37 left in the third period, the fact is he was under siege much of the night as the Islanders fired 42 shots, the first time the Penguins have given up 40-plus shots in a playoff game since a triple-overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators in 2009. Even when the Islanders were trailing, they were the better, more consistent team, creating chances off the rush and by pressuring the Penguins defense with an aggressive forecheck.
They tied the game just past the midway point of the second period with the second of two goals in the middle frame and then won it on a Kyle Okposo shot that came off the end boards and bounced into the net off Fleury.
It was a somehow fitting end to this contest, an ugly goal that on this night was a reminder of the resiliency of a youthful Islander team.
"It was a different goal. I just saw it go off the end boards and I saw it bouncing towards the net, and I was hoping somebody was just going to whack it in," Okposo said. "It just kind of took a crazy bounce and went off him, and I could see it kind of trickling and I was just saying, 'Go, go, go.' And it was able to find the back of the net."
The goal was the first-ever playoff goal for Okposo, who had earlier in the second period bloodied Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen in a spirited fight that seemed to spur the Islanders on.
It was also the first-ever playoff goal for Matt Moulson, who scored the Isles’ first, and for Colin McDonald, who scored the second, and for Matt Martin, who tied the game just past the midway point of the second period.
"It’s huge. It was a big goal and we kept fighting all game," Okposo said. "That was a big character win for us."
Maybe it was the early lead, maybe it was the return of Crosby and the electricity in the sold-out Consol Energy Center, but the Penguins were guilty of a surprising casualness with the puck, especially after building the early lead for the second game in a row.
There were defensive breakdowns and a lack of discipline.
Deryk Engelland took two first-period minor penalties, the first of which led to the Moulson goal.
Then, when the Penguins pushed back late in the second period during a four-minute power play, veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov, yanked early in the second period in Game 1, was terrific, stoning Crosby and Malkin during the same sequence.
"It’s huge, I think, for us as a team, as a group, being in the playoffs and lose the first game the way we lost, I think this game was a little bit of a statement game," said Nabokov, who stopped 30 of 33 shots. "Anytime you fall behind 2-0, 3-0, the next stop is important. That’s what I was trying to do: stop the next one, and then stop the next one."
After looking timid and uncertain in Game 1, the Islanders showed that they are capable of jumping up the playoff learning curve in a hurry. The game marked the sixth time this season they have come from behind on the road while trailing by two or more goals.
"We had our legs going. You could tell we were playing our game," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "When we play that kind of hockey, we normally give ourselves a chance to win."
So, now what?
"I don’t think we feel like we did enough to deserve that one," Crosby said after. "It’s the playoffs. You lose games sometimes. We have to make sure we learn pretty quickly from this one, though. It’s not the way we want to play."
While there was a celebratory air about the Islanders dressing room -- or was it relief? -- as they packed their bags to return home for the next two games, there was also the understanding that what was accomplished on Friday night will soon be rendered moot if they cannot answer with even more of the same.
"It’s only one game. We can’t get too excited," Martin said.
"It won’t mean anything" if the same effort isn’t there on Sunday, he added.
Everyone in the playoffs appeared to have stylized T-shirts that reinforce a message or a theme. The Pens have one with the No. 4 on the back, referring to the four games it takes to get out of the first round.
The Islanders have a shirt that reads: "Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here."
After Friday night’s gutsy comeback win, that sentiment couldn’t be any more apropos.