PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby did what he always seems to do in big moments, scoring two quick goals in his return from a broken jaw.
He gave the Pittsburgh Penguins an early two-goal lead over the New York Islanders on Friday night. Then the Islanders responded, doing something they hadn’t managed in six years: win a playoff game.
Kyle Okposo provided his teammates some inspiration with a well-timed fight in the second period, and he capped a compelling New York rally with winning goal with 7:37 to play. The Islanders’ 4-3 win evened the playoff series at one game each.
Game 3 is Sunday at New York. And instead of heading to Nassau Coliseum in danger of being swept, the Islanders have the momentum after a resilient 60 minutes.
“Our guys, they’re relentless,” New York coach Jack Capuano said.
The Islanders needed to be after Crosby — wearing a plastic shield to protect the jaw he broke on March 30 — found the back of the net twice in the first 7:37.
For a moment, the Islanders bench flash backed to an ugly 5-0 loss in Game 1 when Pittsburgh struck for three early scores to take any drama out of the proceedings.
Capuano kept telling his players all it took was a bounce here or there to get back in it.
The critical bounce came in the third period. Okposo fired a shot wide of the net that caromed back to the crease, then rolled off Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and across the goal line to give New York its first playoff win since April 14, 2007 against Buffalo.
“We’re in the series,” Okposo said. “We just wanted to come out and let them know that we’re not going away.”
Matt Moulson, Colin McDonald and Matt Martin also scored for the Islanders. Evgeni Nabokov overcame a sloppy start to make 30 saves as the youthful Islanders weathered the comeback of the NHL’s best player.
Doctors cleared Crosby to play late Thursday and the arena erupted when his familiar No. 87 skated onto the ice. Adding the league’s third-leading scorer to the lineup figured to make New York’s task all the more daunting.
Instead the Islanders counter-attacked effectively all night, providing the Penguins with an ugly reminder of their first-round collapse against Philadelphia last spring when the Flyers lit them up for 30 goals in six games. New York peppered Fleury for 42 shots. Fleury turned aside 38, though that number doesn’t include the 18 Islanders shots that missed the net or the 19 that Pittsburgh blocked, numbers that kept Fleury busy all night.
“It’s the playoffs; you lose games sometimes,” Crosby said. “But I think we’ve got to make sure we learn from this one pretty quickly. It’s not the way we want to play, and we definitely have a lot of room to improve.”
The Penguins couldn’t muster much after Okposo’s first career playoff goal, and the Islanders spilled over the boards after toppling the Eastern Conference’s top seed as a solemn crowd trudged to the exit.
The end played in stark contrast to the beginning, when Evgeni Malkin staked Pittsburgh to a 1-0 lead 43 seconds into the game when he poked in his own rebound over a sprawled Nabokov.
Crosby, who memorably scored on a breathtaking end-to-end rush in his comeback from concussion-like symptoms against the Islanders in November 2011, did not provide any magic on his first shift.
Instead, he waited for his second.
Standing all alone on the post, Crosby tapped in a simple pass from Jarome Iginla to make it 2-0 before the game was four minutes old. The Islanders cut the lead in half when Moulson chipped a power-play goal past Fleury 7:04 into the period, but the momentum lasted all of 18 seconds.
That’s how long it took for the Penguins to win the next faceoff and have Crosby skate behind the net, then roof a shot by Nabokov from just above the goal line.
Yet the Islanders, unlike in Game 1, did not succumb. Even as the Penguins were scoring, New York continued to generate quality opportunities of its own.
In the second period, those opportunities turned into goals.
McDonald pulled the Islanders within one 5:12 when he stuffed a backhand underneath Fleury’s pads from a bad angle. Martin tied it just past the game’s midway point when he collected a wayward shot off the end boards and slammed it by Fleury.
The surge seemed to unnerve the Penguins. Iginla drew a boarding penalty for attempting to retaliate after New York defenseman Brian Strait dumped Crosby, and Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen found himself fighting Okposo after Okposo took exception with a Niskanen check on Moulson.
Niskanen may have won the fight, but Okposo drew blood, a fitting symbol for what the Islanders were able to do while giving the Penguins a reality check.
“Kyle just stepped up for a teammate and anytime you see somebody do that this time of year, it goes a long way,” New York center John Tavares said. “It just seemed to keep pushing our game to get better.”