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Peca's words prove to be prophetic Add to ...

Michael Peca, the soft-spoken captain of the New York Islanders, was discussing traffic and how it entered into his team's game plan. This was not the ubiquitous traffic on the nearby Long Island Expressway, but the comparative lack of traffic the Islanders had generated in front of Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph during the first two games of their Eastern Conference playoff series.

In losing twice, Peca isolated the absence of traffic and screens as the primary reason why the Islanders managed just the single, solitary goal in Toronto. If any Islanders needed the thought reinforced, coach Peter Laviolette posted a newspaper clipping making a similar point on the bulletin board before the game.

The message was clearly received. With their playoff lives hanging in the balance, the Islanders embarrassed the visiting Maple Leafs, winning every important battle in the traffic areas in front of the goal. It's not often that game plans get executed with quite that kind of precision.

The result was a decisive 6-1 Islanders win, after which Leafs left winger Gary Roberts candidly assessed the damage: "We weren't very good tonight," Roberts said.

No, they were not. Their skilled players weren't very good, with Mats Sundin struggling to handle the puck and Joseph struggling to catch it. Their supporting cast was equally weak, especially on defence. Karel Pilar made too many giveaways in less than 10 minutes of playing time, including a bad turnover on Peca's second-period breakaway goal. Jyrki Lumme was on the ice for four goals against, two at even strength. Wade Belak took a holding and then an undisciplined unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty midway through the opening period, which resulted in the first of four New York power-play goals.

Some would argue that Islanders general manager Mike Milbury's rant about the state of the officiating in the first two games had the desired effect. The Islanders went four-for-nine with the man advantage and the Leafs were shut out in their eight power-play tries.

Milbury vented on the referees because of his perception that the calls in the series were not divided with King Solomon-like evenhandedness.

This, of course, is the usual gamesmanship that both general managers, Milbury and Toronto's Pat Quinn, tend to practise ad nauseam. All it really does it give the series something of crybaby feel to it. In last night's game, the Islanders opened up a three-goal, second-period lead, at which point the Leafs had played 11 minutes with the man advantage, the Islanders 10:46.

Even enough for everybody? Well, no. Of course not. Quinn had to take his turn wearing the hair shirt.

"If they don't call it and they don't let you retaliate, then it's a tough night -- and it was a tough night," Quinn said.

In more ways than one. Not much was happening for New York in the first 13 minutes of play. Toronto opened up a 1-0 lead on Alexander Mogilny's goal and had things pretty much in control. Then Belak took a penalty for holding the Islanders' Brad Isbister as he drove to the net off the left wing. Belak compounded the error by arguing the call to the refereeing staff, Bill McCreary and Shane Heyer.

Not smart, given the scrutiny the referees were under. With Belak off, Mark Parrish corralled the rebound of a Roman Hamrlik shot and buried it into the empty net. In the second, Isbister jammed in the rebound of Adrian Aucoin's shot on a similar play. From there, Peca scored on a breakaway following a Pilar giveaway and then Parrish made it 4-1 on a two-man advantage, again by shovelling a rebound past the beleaguered Joseph.

After the Islanders increased the count to 6-1, Quinn gave Joseph the hook so he could be ready for tonight's game. The silliness started in earnest after Corey Schwab came in, beginning with a Steve Webb hit on Robert Reichel that Roberts strongly objected too. Roberts responded by chasing after Mariusz Czerkawski and from there, it devolved into a wrestling match -- and not a very good wrestling match.

"It's not about losing your composure," Roberts said. "It's about supporting your teammates. I don't think there was any chance of us tying the game 6-6, so we just wanted to let them know, if they're going to run our skilled guys, we'll do the same to theirs."

Isbister, who had only a so-so season for the Islanders, was the catalyst, drawing the pivotal first-period penalty and then scoring the eventual game winner. Considering so much of the game was played with special teams, the Islanders' Alexei Yashin had a comparatively quiet night, earning just two assists.

There was little quit in the Islanders last night, in a game that marked their first home playoff date since April 24, 1994 -- a span of eight years. Their fans clearly enjoyed the experience, taunting the Leafs with the chant "67" as the teams played out the final minutes. That, of course, was a reference to Toronto's last Stanley Cup championship team -- 35 years and counting.

Too many more games like last night's and it'll become 36 years in a hurry. Eric Duhatschek writes analysis and commentary for globeandmail.com; his column appears on the Web site Tuesday through Saturday.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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