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May 10, 2013

Pens blank Islanders to regain series lead

PITTSBURGH — Tomas Vokoun had forgotten what it was like to start in the playoffs. Tyler Kennedy wondered if he’d ever get the chance again.

That’s never an issue for Sidney Crosby, who followed the lead of his decidedly less-heralded teammates to establish a bit of order to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round series with the New York Islanders.

Vokoun stopped 31 shots in his first postseason appearance in six years, Kennedy broke a scoreless tie with a sizzling breakaway and Crosby delivered another magical goal in a career stuffed with them. The Penguins beat the Islanders 4-0 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Kris Letang and Doug Murray also scored for Pittsburgh, which finally looked like the team that rolled to the best record in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.

Game 6 is Saturday in New York. Another 60 minutes like the Penguins put together on Thursday and a Game 7 won’t be required.

“They played harder than us,” New York coach Jack Capuano said. “The better team won tonight.  They deserved the hockey game.”

One the Penguins desperately needed after the Islanders evened the series 2-2 with a wild 6-4 victory in Game 4 that appeared to have the top seed reeling.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma grew so frustrated watching eighth-seeded New York overwhelm goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that Bylsma benched the Stanley Cup winner — who had made 79 consecutive playoff starts — in favor of Vokoun, a 36-year-old journeyman who has never made it out of the first round of the postseason in his career.

Vokoun is three periods away now after shutting out the Islanders for the second time this season. Not bad for a guy starting his first playoff game since April 20, 2007 while playing for Nashville.

“I was a little bit nervous the whole day; you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t,” Vokoun said.

It didn’t look like it once the puck dropped. Vokoun didn’t budge when the Islanders dominated the first period, turning aside 14 shots in the first 20 minutes as the Penguins tried to gain their bearings with a new lineup designed to cut down New York’s speed advantage.

Though Bylsma’s biggest change was inserting Vokoun in place of Fleury, he also scratched defenseman Mark Eaton and forwards Jussi Jokinen and Tanner Glass in favor of younger, quicker skaters Simon Despres, Joe Vitale and Kennedy.

The moves paid off handsomely.

Kennedy, squeezed out of the rotation by the influx of veterans brought in at the trade deadline, gave the Penguins the confidence boost they needed 7:25 into the second period.

The play began innocently enough in Pittsburgh’s end before Letang hit Kennedy with a pinpoint 80-foot stretch pass right up the middle of the ice. Kennedy greedily accepted the puck at New York’s blue line, then flipped a wrist shot over Evgeni Nabokov’s glove to give Pittsburgh the lead.

The score seemed to rattle Nabokov. Murray loped in a lazy wrist shot from the point that Nabokov tried to glove only to have the puck slip out of his left hand, over his back and into the net.

There was nothing fluky about Crosby’s third goal of the series, a masterpiece that ranks among the more dazzling plays of his already highlight-heavy career.

The Pittsburgh captain, still wearing a cumbersome mask to protect his broken jaw, took a pass from teammate Jarome Iginla at center ice then effortlessly split New York defenders Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey. Crosby crossed the blue line and poked the puck ahead as the defensemen closed in, lifting his stick before stepping through a pair of flailing poke checks.

Nabokov didn’t have a chance as the wrist shot zipped over the goaltender’s stick to push the lead to 3-0.

There’s a statue outside Consol Energy Center commemorating a similar goal by Hall of Famer and team co-owner Mario Lemieux. The bronze sculpture shows Lemieux slicing through two Islanders defenders in 1988 on his way to the net.

Crosby downplayed any similarities.

“His was much nicer than mine,” Crosby said. “He went through guys and stickhandled through them and stickhandled around the goalie, too. I had a few less moves and a pretty basic shot, but I’ll take the goal anytime it goes in.”

The Islanders never recovered.  While they kept Vokoun busy, he was rarely outnumbered as Pittsburgh cut down on the turnovers that led to a seemingly endless flurry of odd-man rushes by the Islanders in Games 2-4.

“We didn’t do a great job of helping Marc out,” Crosby said. “We wanted to make sure we did a better job in front of our goalie.”

When New York did manage to get deep, Vokoun didn’t falter and neither did the guys in front of him as the Penguins were able to develop a consistent rhythm for the first time since a 5-0 romp in Game 1.

Nabokov never located one and found himself on the bench when Letang scored on the power play 5:43 into the third period. Nabokov finished with 23 saves but spent the final 14:17 watching backup Kevin Poulin kept the Penguins off the board. The Islanders will get a chance to regroup at home on Saturday in their bid to win a playoff series for the first time in 20 years.

At least Game 5 is over. New York hasn’t won a Game 5 of any playoff series since 1988.

“For us it’s two Game 7s right now starting on Saturday,” New York defenseman Mark Streit said. “We’ve just got to concentrate on our game, what brought us in this situation and what makes us successful. We know we have it in the room. We’re a confident group.”

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