PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Pittsburgh Penguins have spent the majority of the Sidney Crosby era treating the regular season as an 82-game exhibition until the playoffs start.
Not this year. Not by a long shot.
John Tavares broke a tie with his 37th goal of the season early in the third period and the New York Islanders pulled away to beat the reeling Penguins 3-1 on Friday night. Pittsburgh has lost five straight but can still claw into the post-season through a series of scenarios, the easiest coming with a win over lowly Buffalo on Saturday night.
"That's why we play 82 games to see who (are) the best teams after that," Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said. "Tomorrow is a hell of a game and everybody is excited. Live or die. Can't wait."
There are no such issues for the Islanders. New York clinched a spot Thursday and assured itself of at least third-place in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders can earn home-ice in the first round with a win over Columbus on Saturday and a Washington loss to the New York Rangers.
Jaroslav Halak recovered from a horrific meltdown in a loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night — when he allowed the winning goal on a knuckling wrist shot from 50 feet with 2 seconds left in regulation — by stopping 37 shots. Michael Grabner and Casey Cizikas also scored for the Islanders.
"They had a desperate team tonight and they were throwing everything at the net," Grabner said. "And (Halak) stood on his head. But he's been doing that all year for us and the last game, it was just bad luck. We put that behind us."
Pittsburgh appeared to grab momentum when Rob Scuderi he banged home a shot from the left circle with just 5.7 seconds to go in the second to tie the game. The defenceman's first goal in more than two years evened things, but not for long.
Tavares had little trouble flipping a rebound by Marc-Andre Fleury 2:46 into the third. Grabner added his eighth goal with less than 4 minutes remaining and Halak took care of the rest.
"I needed to be better," Halak said. "Especially with giving up a late goal (on Tuesday) like that."
No matter what happens in the final regular season game ever at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, the Islanders will at least get two more games in their outdated rink before moving to Brooklyn next season.
There may be no more home games for Pittsburgh, at least this season. It's a scenario that seemed far-fetched a month ago before a 3-9-2 spiral that has left the Penguins scrambling. Fleury, voted Pittsburgh's MVP by his teammates earlier in the day, made 23 stops but the Penguins continued to struggle to score. Pittsburgh has 11 goals in its last seven home games.
"We were all around the net, generating some good chances, getting a lot of pucks at the net, competed hard in the corners, all the things you need to do to generate goals," Crosby said. "You have to trust that it's going to go in."
The Penguins blew an early three-goal lead in an overtime loss to Ottawa on Tuesday night, but responded with perhaps their best stretch of play in a long time early against the Islanders.
Hornqvist nearly put Pittsburgh up 7:52 into the game when he tried to jam the puck by Halak. The goalie snatched the puck with his glove, which just happened to be behind the goal line when play was stopped. It was ruled no goal on the ice and upheld on review. The 375th consecutive sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center hadn't finished voicing its displeasure when Cizikas found himself racing the other way and firing a wrist shot by Fleury for New York's 10th short-handed goal of the season, tied with Winnipeg for the NHL lead.
Halak's brilliance continued into the second. He stuck his left toe in front of Crosby's backhander to keep the Penguins off the board and Pittsburgh appeared headed for the third period down a goal, not the best position for a team that hasn't won a game when trailing after two periods all season.
The equalizer came from an unlikely source, though Scuderi's first goal since Jan. 19, 2013 resulted from a peerless shift by Crosby that ended with Crosby's rebound off a Paul Martin shot sliding across the ice to Scuderi. The 36-year-old's 100th career point smacked off Halak's right hand and into the net with just 5.7 seconds left in the period.
It just wasn't enough to stop a tailspin that could have Pittsburgh out of the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
NOTES: Tavares and Crosby both have 84 points, tied for the NHL lead. ... The Penguins dressed five defenceman and 13 forwards, though forward Craig Adams played only on the penalty kill. ... Islanders D Travis Hominic left after the first period with an undisclosed injury and did not return. ... New York improved to 21-6-2 against the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins are 9-17-4 against divisional opponents.