PITTSBURGH – Tomas Vokoun stopped 31 shots in his first playoff start in six years and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the New York Islanders 4-0 on Thursday night in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
Sidney Crosby, Tyler Kennedy and Douglas Murray scored during a seven-minute stretch in the second period and Kris Letang added a power-play goal in the third as Pittsburgh moved a step closer to advancing to the second round.
The Penguins lead the series 3-2. Game 6 is Saturday in New York.
Evgeni Nabokov made 23 saves for the Islanders, but also gave up breakaway goals to Crosby and Kennedy and botched a lazy wrist shot from Murray that gave the Penguins all the offense they would need.
Vokoun was thrust into the lineup after Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma benched Marc-Andre Fleury, who had started 79 straight postseason games but struggled in a 6-4 loss in Game 4. The 36-year-old Vokoun didn’t look intimidated by the stage as the Penguins restored a little order to a wide-open series.
The eighth-seeded Islanders looked like the better team through much of the first four games, using their speed to keep the talented but somewhat plodding top-seeded Penguins on their heels.
Bylsma’s biggest change was inserting Vokoun in place of Fleury, but 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.
New York controlled play for most of a scoreless first period before Kennedy – squeezed out of the rotation by the influx of veterans brought in at the trade deadline – broke through 7:25 into the second.
The play began innocently enough in Pittsburgh’s end before Letang hit Kennedy with a sizzling 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 Nabokov’s glove to give the Penguins 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.
The Islanders never recovered, not with Vokoun continuing his mastery over them. When Bylsma announced he was benching Fleury after the Stanley Cup winner’s third-straight subpar performance in Game 4, Bylsma pointed to Vokoun’s hot hand against New York as proof he was making the right call.
Vokoun went 3-0 against the Islanders during the regular season, stopping 98 of 101 shots. Those numbers only got better. Having the guys in front of him play a bit more responsibly than they did in front of Fleury helped. While Vokoun was kept 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.
When New York did manage to get deep, Vokoun didn’t budge. The Islanders had their best chances in the first period, but Vokoun was equal to the task, giving the Penguins a chance to find a rhythm.
Nabokov never located one and found himself on the bench when Letang scored on the power play 5:43 into the third period. Backup Kevin Poulin kept the Penguins off the board the rest of the way, and 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.
NOTES: New York played without D Andrew MacDonald, who is dealing with an upper body injury. The Islanders also scratched F Marty Reasoner and D Matt Carkner among others ... Kennedy’s goal was his sixth winning goal in the postseason, sixth most in Pittsburgh history.