Forget the Tampa Bay Lightning’s forces of nature, Game 4 wound up being about the New York Islanders’ hands of God.
Ryan Pulock made a sliding goal-line block with his gloves on Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s spinning backhanded attempt as time expired — and with goaltender Semyon Varlamov out of position — to preserve the Islanders’ 3-2 Game 4 victory on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum to tie their Stanley Cup semifinal series at two games apiece.
“I think everybody’s breath just got taken away,” Islanders star center Mathew Barzal, who recorded a goal on Saturday night, said. “I thought it was going in and it was just a miraculous play by Puli. I’m not going to be forgetting that one.”
“It’s playoffs. Nothing surprises anybody really,” head coach Barry Trotz added. “That’s the great thing about our game. We can bring you out of your seats right until the last minute. What a save by Puli.”
With Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy pulled for an extra skater, the visitors mounted one last push in an attempt to come back from a 3-0 hole going into the third period. As the Islanders tried to hold the puck, it squirted out to an open McDonagh, who skated in, deked around a defenseman, got Varlamov to bite, and spun to send that backhander toward the Islanders’ open net where Pulock slid to save his side’s skins.
“I played a little goalie in maybe street hockey, but that’s about it,” Pulcok joked. “I just tried to make myself big, saw it coming in… it kind of rattled there and I just tried to make myself as big as I could and push it to the side.”
The Islanders built the once-healthy advantage with a three-goal outburst from Josh Bailey, Barzal, and Matt Martin in the second period, which was more than they recorded in each of the first three games of the series.
It could have been more for the Islanders, considering they hit a pair of pipes in the opening period.
Four minutes in, Kyle Palmieri rang a wrister off the iron on an Islanders odd-man rush; an early suggestion that the Islanders be on the forefront given the dire situation of staring down a potential 3-1 series hole.
But the Lightning answered an early Islanders push with an even more aggressive one of their own, calling for the very best of Varlamov as he made a sweeping save on a power move across the face of his goal from Alex Killorn before stoning a Ross Colton wrister from in close with a quick glove hand.
Trotz opted to shuffle his lines in an attempted rebuttal, moving Palmieri up to the first line with Barzal and Jordan Eberle while moving Leo Komarov down to the third unit.
The trio began generating chances almost immediately, including another post — this time from Barzal — after Palmieri made a move from behind the Tampa net.
“It’s something I’ve been contemplating each game,” Trotz said. “They’re going to be low-scoring games. We can’t get into a track meet with this team. They finish so well. I just felt I had last change and there was more cadence in this game and I felt that would be an easier switch for me tonight. We’ll see what we do next game.”
Cal Clutterbuck — who had a two-point night of his own — momentarily stymied his own team’s momentum when he was called for roughing on a hit near the head of Lightning star Nikita Kucherov. Tampa’s high-powered man-advantage was held in check, with the best chance falling to the Islanders as Komarov was stopped on a breakaway by Vasilevskiy.
The Islanders drew first blood and finally beat Vasilevskiy through a brilliant move by the second line. An entry by Anthony Beauvillier was dropped behind to Brock Nelson, who sent a spinning cross-ice pass to Bailey. After weaving in from the right boards, the Islanders’ longest-tenured player ripped a wrister over the Lightning netminder’s shoulder.
Momentum stayed with the hosts as they put on their finest offensive barrage of the series, applying consistent pressure to Vasilevskiy’s net. With 6:14 remaining in the frame, a shot from the point by Clutterbuck came right to the path of an on-rushing Barzal after a deflection by Palmieri, who fired home the Islanders’ second goal of the night into a wide-open net.
Extracurriculars after the goal saw Mikhail Sergachev crosscheck Palmieri down to the ice to create some 4-on-4 action — which then swayed to 4-on-3 for 1:14 after Erik Cernak boarded Beauvillier.
A chance to gain some distance from the Lightning went beckoning as the Islanders couldn’t take advantage of the man-advantages.
They made up for it with 2:03 left in the period when a fourth-line assault was capped off by a Martin backhander that popped in over Vasilevskiy to make it 3-0. After the Lightning’s challenge on a possible offside failed, it immediately put the Islanders on another power play that came up empty.
Regardless, the depth of the Islanders was truly shown in the three-goal outburst as nine points were recorded by eight players with 13-different skaters being on the ice during the goals.
“The second period can be dangerous for any team in terms of getting guys stuck out there,” Martin said of his team’s surge. “We’re a team that likes to get the puck in and forecheck and roll lines over… The physicality and hemming teams in and using it to our advantage as much as possible.”
Brayden Point stayed red-hot to get the Lightning back within two 3:45 into the third period when he bolted into the Islanders’ zone alone and snapped a wrister between two defensemen and through Varlamov — a soft one to concede compared to other high-danger chances faced.
Just 2:58 later, Tyler Johnson pulled the Lightning within one when he weaved through a flat-footed Islanders defense that had been pinned down and mailed a wrister neatly into the top-right corner of Varlamov’s goal.
In an attempt to calm things down, Trotz used his timeout to at least try to delay the Lightning siege.
“I didn’t have to say a lot. This group is a pretty mature group,” Trotz said. “We have 10 minutes to go, we’ve been here to go. Let’s take a deep breath and focus on taking care of business in the last 10 minutes.”
It did the trick, as the Islanders restored their defensive shell and kept the Lightning’s chances mostly toward the perimeter, though Varlamov had to make a massive save on a Kucherov one-timer in the final moments.
With the Lightning’s net pulled, the Islanders were able to spring Clutterbuck down the left wing with a chance to ice it, but he was tripped up by Victor Hedman with 1:12 to go, putting New York on the power play and creating the last helter-skelter moments.
“That’s a special play,” Bailey said of Pulock’s save. “Just a great play by him, game-saving play, obviously. Huge.”
“The situation that we’re in, how deep we are in the playoffs, and how important these games are, there’s been no situation that I’ve been a part of before,” Pulock added. “When you can save a game like that, get the win like that, it’s a good feeling.”