The disheartening aspect of Isles 4, Pens 3 in OT was how well things had gone before they fell apart.
For two encouraging periods on Thursday night the Penguins not only played as if they wanted it, they executed as if they knew how to get it.
The puck got deep (even Kris Letang was willing to dump it in). They retrieved with urgency and battled for the puck when they didn’t get there first. When they couldn’t dump it below the goal line, the skated it there. When passing into the slot wasn’t an option they played low-to-high and then got pucks to the net with traffic.
For 40 minutes the game was played almost entirely in the Islanders’ end. And on those rare occasions when they had to defend they backchecked and sorted out defensive-zone coverage appropriately and with purpose.
For 40 minutes they were beating the Islanders by playing the type of game that has to be played in the playoffs much more often than not.
“We didn’t get stubborn with the puck,” head coach Mike Sullivan noted.
That they were able to do all of that for as long as they managed to do it was a revelation.
And they may well have finished the job if not for the penalties.
Alas, those came in rapid-fire succession as the Pens endeavored to protect a 3-1, third-period lead.
Jan Rutta for elbowing at 3:39 (a Jacob Trouba-caliber shot to Casey Cizikas’ head).
Josh Archibald for roughing at 5:19 (the Isles’ Otto Koivula also went to the box but that still wasn’t the time or place to play tough guy).
Drew O’Connor for hooking at 9:47 (an offensive-zone penalty).
The scoreboard didn’t change, but the momentum did.
And that was the crack the Islanders needed.
The latter stages of the third period degenerated quickly.
A breakout pass from Jeff Petry to O’Connor that turned into a neutral-zone turnover, a transition opportunity and, eventually, a goal (Hudson Fasching). An inability to defend one-on-one in the slot on Fasching even when the intent to do so was there (Mikael Granlund). Confused coverage that resulted in a guy who had already scored six goals against the Pens this season, including one in the first period on Thursday night, scoring unmolested from the doorstep to force OT with 1:15 left in regulation (Anders Lee). And last but not least, a pass to the slot from below the goal line (Rickard Rakell) getting deflected by goaltender Ilya Sorokin on its way to Marcus Pettersson and turning into a breakaway and the game-winning goal.
Toss in Jeff Carter touching a puck when he shouldn’t have after hitting it with a high stick, necessitating a defensive-zone face-off rather than more time continuing to run off the clock and you have a perfect storm.
It could be rationalized as such if it didn’t happen so often.
But as Brian Metzer of the Penguins Radio Network pointed out on the postgame show, such collapses have happened at a historic rate this season.
The Pens are now 20-4-5 when leading after two periods, worse than the 20-3-5 they managed in 2019-20, their previous worst showing in such situations under Sullivan.
It’s what this season’s Pens do best, even on those rare occasions when they play with the best of intentions.