The New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins invariably play entertaining games at Nassau Coliseum. Just as predictable is the visiting team emerging with a victory.
Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta scored the go-ahead goal early in the second period and Evgeni Malkin added an insurance score in the third as the Penguins rallied from an early deficit and held on for a wild 6-4 win over the Islanders on Thursday night.
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The Islanders had a 5-on-3 power play for 50 seconds late in the third, but couldn’t score against backup Jeff Zatkoff, who made 30 saves for the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins (36-13-2). Pittsburgh improved to 17-5 against Metropolitan Division opponents.
Zatkoff (8-2-1) stopped Frans Nielsen point-blank during the power-play and denied John Tavares, second in the league in scoring to Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, with a shoulder save in the closing seconds.
”Jeff hung in there and was strong when he had to be,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of his goaltender. ”He made that huge late save and showed fortitude – as we all did – to stay with it tonight.”
Brandon Sutter scored an empty-net goal for the Penguins, who trailed 2-0 early and also got goals from Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang.
Michael Grabner, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo had goals for the Islanders.
Maatta scored his fifth of the season at 5:35 of the middle period to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead when the 19-year-old Finnish defenseman skated through the Islanders defense before sliding a backhand past Kevin Poulin.
Letang scored at 17:44 after the Penguins’ league-best power-play unit kept the puck in the Islanders zone for nearly an entire man advantage. After hitting the post, Letang blasted the puck past Poulin for this 10th goal of the season to give Pittsburgh a two-goal cushion.
Bailey pulled the Islanders within a goal at 4-3 at 3:10 of the third when he beat Zatkoff on a breakaway. The goal came after Matt Martin of the Islanders fought Pittsburgh’s Tanner Glass.
But Malkin slapped a perfect cross-ice pass from James Neal past Poulin at 5:59 for this 14th goal. Malkin has points in 24 of 27 games since Nov. 1, with 11 goals and 30 assists during the stretch.
”The emotion was there for both teams tonight as it always seems to be when we play the Islanders,” Crosby said. ”We found a way to stay strong and make key plays at the right times.”
Okposo received credit for a goal at 10:55 of the third to make it 5-4 after the puck crossed the goal line in a scrum in front of Zatkoff. The play was reviewed and the goal awarded, the 21st for Okposo.
Sutter scored an empty-net goal for the Penguins at 19:56 to conclude the scoring.
The Islanders surprised the Penguins with two quick first-period goals before the visitors answered with a pair of their own in the latter half of the period.
Grabner whipped a loose puck past Zatkoff at 1:39. Then, Grabner set up Nelson at 8:21 to make it 2-0.
Kunitz answered for the Penguins at 9:32 with a slap shot from the top of left circle past Poulin. Crosby and Maatta assisted on the 25th goal of the season for Kunitz, who will join Crosby on Team Canada at the Winter Games in Sochi next month.
Then, Crosby tied it at 11:24 with his 27th goal of the season when he jammed a rebound past Poulin.
”They play an aggressive style and they create opportunities,” added Crosby, who also had two assists and leads the league with 72 points. ”We were able to create some of our own and hold them off when we had to.”
The Penguins entered 26-2-1 when scoring first and 9-11-1 when they didn’t. This time, they found a way to recover and overcome the Islanders (21-25-7).
New York has been on a torrid streak that pulled them from a 9-19-7 record after a shootout loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 17 within five points of a playoff spot before meeting the Penguins. The Islanders lost for just the fourth time in 14 games.
”Again, it was about our battle level or the lack of it,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. ”We have to defend harder. You can’t give a team with as much firepower as the Penguins all that time and space. We got away from how we have to play for about 10 minutes and it cost us.”
The three previous Islanders-Penguins games this season were decided by one goal. The teams split two games in Pittsburgh before Crosby capped a Penguins comeback with an overtime goal at the Coliseum on Dec. 3.
Pittsburgh is 7-1-1 over its last nine and 15-3-1 in its last 19 contests. The Penguins have also won seven of their last eight regular-season games against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. The Penguins defeated the Islanders in a six-game first-round playoff series last May.
NOTES: Crosby has 25 goals and 58 assists in 45 regular-season games against the Islanders, including 11 goals and 24 assists in 21 games at Nassau Coliseum. … The Penguins are 11-1 in their last 12 division games. The only loss was a 2-1 setback against the Devils in Newark on Dec. 31. The Penguins are 13-4-2 in their last 19 games at Nassau Coliseum. … The Islanders continued to be without D Travis Hamonic (upper body).