While the Pittsburgh Penguins were trying to chase down the New York Rangers, they seem to have overlooked the New York Islanders.
Pittsburgh has been trying to catch the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers, and a monthlong stretch in which they barely lost got them within one point with a whole lot of momentum.
A home-and-home set with the also-ran Islanders seemed to be the perfect tonic to keep the Penguins rolling, but the Penguins failed to take advantage.
After sustaining a rare loss to New York in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, the Penguins did little to change their fortunes in the rematch and were beaten 5-3 on Thursday — on a night Penguins captain Sidney Crosby took a puck to the face and left the ice briefly with a gushing bloody nose.
Now Pittsburgh’s hopes of finishing first are nearly gone.
The Penguins trail the Rangers by five points with five games remaining, and New York owns the tiebreaker. Of bigger concern is the Philadelphia Flyers, who are only two points behind Pittsburgh in the race for home-ice advantage in what is shaping up to be an all-Pennsylvania matchup in the first round.
”We’re in Buffalo (Friday), and we have big games with Philly, New York, Boston and Philly again,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. ”We’re going to try to win every one of those games.”
Josh Bailey had two goals and three assists, after setting up three goals in the Islanders’ win at Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and carried the New York offense that is usually fueled by top-line forwards John Tavares and Matt Moulson. That duo was a combined minus-2 on Thursday, but it didn’t matter.
Secondary scoring from the line of Bailey, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen made the difference in the back-to-back 5-3 wins.
”As a line I thought we played pretty well and found a way to get some goals,” Bailey said. ”It’s resulted in our team getting a couple of extra wins and takes some pressure off the top line.”
The Islanders (33-33-11), in a 12th-place tie in the 15-team Eastern Conference, took pride in their fight down the stretch and their accomplishment of getting back to .500
New York is playing the spoiler role to the hilt, and in turn helping out the hated Rangers.
”We always play to win, no matter where we are in the standings,” said Okposo, who reached 20 goals for the first time. ”We always play with pride. I think the last two games definitely showed that.”
The night was already going badly for the Penguins when Crosby left in the second period after he was struck in the nose by a puck and was bloodied. Crosby has missed significant time because of concussion troubles, but he was able to return shortly after.
He didn’t need stitches, but he sounded very congested when he spoke after the game. However, the result seemed to bother him more than the injury.
”We didn’t do a lot of good things and we paid for it again,” Crosby said. ”We made some mistakes and they capitalized on it.”
The Penguins, who hadn’t lost consecutive games in regulation since Jan. 10-11, are trying to finish first to avoid being no better than the No. 4 seed in the East.
”We have to find ways to get back on track,” forward Jordan Staal said. ”It’s going to take everyone in the room.”
Marty Reasoner gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead with his first goal in over a year, and Pascal Dupuis got the Penguins even in the second with a short-handed goal while Crosby was in the dressing room for repairs.
When Crosby got back to the bench and then on the ice, the Islanders took over again. Okposo scored a power-play goal when his centering pass intended for Nino Niederreiter caromed into the net off defenseman Deryk Engelland with 3:24 left in the period.
Bailey pushed the lead to 3-1 exactly two minutes later when he scored on a short-handed breakaway. Bailey starred in this two-game series, notching a career-best three assists in each game and helping the Islanders snap the Penguins’ 10-game, home-winning streak with their first win in Pittsburgh in more than four years (0-11-2).
”I don’t see the opponent being the demoralizing part,” Bylsma said. ”I didn’t see a lot of response in the way we played.”
Okposo added his second of the night at 5:52 of the third off a feed from Bailey. Al Montoya made 26 saves.
Evgeni Malkin cut it to 4-3 with 1:31 remaining after goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled for an extra skater, but Bailey added an empty-netter with 4.7 seconds left.
Pittsburgh, which recorded 54 shots in Tuesday’s loss, held a 29-24 edge Thursday.
The Penguins were recently rolling and cementing themselves as the popular choice to be this year’s Stanley Cup champion. But sudden struggles, coinciding with the Rangers getting back on track, have stunted Pittsburgh’s surge. The Penguins went on a 13-0-1 spurt, but are 1-3 since.
The Islanders returned home after a 4-1 road trip with their slim playoff hopes still intact, and they took things to the Penguins again.
Reasoner got New York on the board in the fast-moving first period by snapping in his first goal in 71 games – dating to March 8, 2011.
Crosby, playing in the ninth game of his second comeback of the season after recovering from concussion symptoms, was injured 1:43 into the second. Islanders defenseman Dylan Reese was trying to clear the puck out of the lower left corner in the New York end when he hit Crosby, who was standing a few feet away.
Crosby stayed down on his stomach for about a minute before getting back up on his skates. He skated off toward the tunnel to the dressing room. He returned to the bench with 10:13 left in the period, and was back on the ice moments later.
He returned to a 1-1 game after Dupuis scored to tie it at 8:37.
But Okposo put New York back in front 7:59 later, and Bailey made it 3-1 when Jay Pandolfo dived at center ice to knock a loose puck to him and send him in on a breakaway.
Okposo struck again in the third, and Staal brought the Penguins within 4-2 with 11:40 remaining.