Dan Bylsma had no words Tuesday night after he was asked if he had been nervous for his starting goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins’ head coach just feverishly nodded his head. While Fleury had an uncharacteristically bad game, surrendering five goals on 18 shots, after the Pens’ 5-3 loss to the Islanders most questions about the Pens’ net-minder were not about his performance, but about his health.
Through two periods of hockey, Fleury dealt with both Islanders and Penguins crashing into his net, one shot that stung him in the jaw, and, while coming out to challenge a shooter in the second period, was hit in the head by his own defensemen. Fleury lost his helmet after the collision with Paul Martin and seemed shaken afterwards, but finished the period.
“I’m good,” Fleury said after the game. “(They pulled me) because I let in five (goals) in two periods, (not because I was injured).”
Bylsma also seemed confident about Fleury’s condition after the game.
“Marc was fine and not dealing with any (concussion symptoms),” Bylsma, who also stressed that Fleury was pulled because of his performance, not an injury, said. “But every situation is different, every injury is different…he didn’t have any (symptoms) that would indicate he was dealing with a concussion or concussion symptoms.”
The heart-stopping incident in the second period underscored how important Fleury is to the team’s success. The Pens have shown that they can make do without star forwards and even defensemen. But even if Brent Johnson is healthy in time for the post-season, the Penguins will go nowhere without Fleury.
If he is indeed OK, it will be the only silver lining the Penguins can take from Tuesday night’s game, the first in a home-and-home series with the Islanders.
With the way Pittsburgh has been dominating the rest of the NHL lately – they are 14-2-1 in their last 17 games – it would be easy to say their 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders Tuesday night was just a fluke – a somewhat poorly officiated game and a rare off night for the league’s current juggernaut.
But, as Brooks Orpik pointed out after the game, what sunk the Pens against the Isles, who won in Pittsburgh for the first time in 14 games and kept themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot, was a lack of defensive responsibility that has plagued them for the past few games.
“I think not just tonight (but) the last five or six games we’re giving up a lot of good, good chances,” Orpik said. “We’re trying to out-score teams rather than out-defend. Some nights you get away with it, some nights you don’t.”
Bylsma mostly agreed.
“I don’t know if it’s (being) lax defensively as much as it is (being) lax with the puck,” he said. “Thinking that we can turn almost every play into an offensive chance and not taking care of the puck and how we manage it, which has turned into a lot of odd-man situations back against us.”
While it’s still mathematically possible, the Islanders will not make the playoffs. The Penguins, however, who recently gave up eight goals against Ottawa and allowed Philadelphia to come back from an 0-2 deficit in what turned out to be a heartbreaking OT loss, are still fighting for the number one spot in the Eastern Conference. They began the night one point behind the first-place Rangers, but are now three points back, as New York collected two points against Minnesota Tuesday night.
The Flyers are right behind the Pens with 96 points. With 3 games remaining against the Flyers and Rangers, the Penguins, who are currently without regular defensemen Kris Letang, Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy, will have to tighten up their blue line, or they could be starting the playoffs on the road in Philadelphia.
Though Fleury delivered a rare poor performance, his teammates didn’t fare much better. The Pens looked unprepared and at times totally out of synch with each other. They allowed droves of odd-man rushes and failed to connect on passes.
“We’re putting too much pressure on our goalies,” Orpik said.
While Pittsburgh didn’t provide much support for their goalie, they were stifled at the other end of the rink by Islanders’ starter Evgeni Nabokov, who stopped 30 of 32 shots before being pulled after two periods because of a lower body injury, and then by backup Al Montoya, who stopped 21 of 22 shots in the third period.
An odd bounce behind the Penguins’ net led to the Islanders’ first goal 3:12 into the first period. Dylan Reese’s initial shot hit off of the left post, ricocheted off of the end boards behind Pens’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and bounced straight to Frans Nielsen at the right side of the Pens’ net. Nielsen shot the puck into an open cage, as Fleury couldn’t get over fast enough to stop him.
Michael Grabner slipped a soft goal past Fleury with four seconds remaining in the first period to put the Islanders up by two.
Tyler Kennedy deflected Pascal Dupuis’ shot past Islanders’ goalie Evgeni Nabokov to cut New York’s lead in half 1:42 into the second.
Just 2:28 later, James Neal capitalized off of a 2-on-1 odd-man break with Chris Kunitz to knot the game at two.
After Brooks Orpik fumbled a pass at the Islanders’ blue line, Kyle Okposo found the errant puck in the neutral zone and broke in alone on Fleury. Okposo fired a shot from the right circle over Fleury’s glove at 12:48 of the second to give New York a 3-2 lead.
The Isles got their fourth goal on 17 shots when David Ullstrom put a close-range shot past Fleury on an Islanders power play at 15:20 of the second. Less than three minutes later, Nielsen got behind the Penguins defense for a partial breakaway. When Fleury came out to challenge him, he collided with teammate Paul Martin, losing his helmet. With Fleury down and way out of his net, Nielsen sent his second goal of the game into a vacated net to put the Pens down by three.
They Pens’ comeback effort came too late in the third period. Already on a 4-on-3 power play, the Penguins were awarded another man-advantage. With Brad Thiessen off the ice, James Neal scored on the delayed penalty call with 4:18 remaining in the game.
That was as close as the Pens came, however. Pittsburgh can get back on track Thursday night on Long Island.
1. Frans Nielsen
2. Josh Bailey
3. James Neal
PIT: Tyler Kennedy (10), James Neal (36, 37)
NYI: Frans Nielsen (16, 17), Michael Grabner (17), Kyle Okposo (18), David Ullstrom (4)
NYI: Dylan Reese (2), Josh Bailey (3), Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo
PIT: Pascal Dupuis, Brian Strait, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin (2), Steve Sullivan
In the Net:
PIT: Marc-Andre Fleury (L) 13-18, Brad Thiessen 7-7
NYI: Evgeni Nabokov (W) 30-32, Al Montoya 21-22