That very well could have been the biggest defensive play made by a non-goalie in Islanders franchise history — and one that will likely be ranked upon the most improbable that New York sports as a whole has ever seen.
Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock made the block of his life on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum in the dying seconds of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup semifinals to preserve a 3-2 victory and knot up the series at two games apiece.
Tampa Bay Lightning defender Ryan McDonagh did everything right when he received the puck at the left point with seven seconds left in regulation. All alone, he took his space until he was confronted by Islanders forward Brock Nelson, got goaltender Semyon Varlamov to come out of his net and ultimately move out of position as mostly everyone on and off the ice expected the blueliner to snap a wrist shot.
Yet the former Rangers’ blue liner spun around Nelson to create a wide-open net as Varlamov glided too far from his crease — he was next to McDonagh roughly eight feet from the net — letting go of a backhander in the process with three seconds to go.
“I tried to take a peek up at the scoreboard,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “All I saw was [Nelson] sliding and McDonagh turned and Varly was coming out to challenge and it looked like it was going in the net.”
“Your heart sinks for a second,” veteran winger Matt Martin added.
It took less than a second for the puck to list toward the net, but what felt like out of nowhere came a crouching Pulock, sliding across the goal line to block the equalizer from finding its expected home with his gloves; all while making sure he did not close his hands around the puck to reward the Lightning with a last-second penalty shot.
He was mobbed by his teammates and a thankful Varlamov as the buzzer sounded while guaranteeing that Nassau Coliseum will get to see at least one more night of raucous playoff hockey on Wednesday night following Game 5 in Tampa Bay.
“I just tried to make myself big,” Pulock said of his heroics. “I saw it coming in, I got a glove on it and it did kind of rattle there and I just tried to take away all the net that I could and push it to the side and not let it get through me.”
As the Islanders have willed their way well past the status of afterthoughts on the New York sports scene, suddenly Pulock’s game-saver is as unlikely and important as much as memorable as Derek Jeter’s flip play, David Tyree’s helmet catch, and Endy Chavez’s home run robbery of Scott Rolen.
“That’s a special play,” veteran forward Josh Bailey said. “Just a great play by him, a game-saving play, obviously. Huge.”
“Not like that,” star center Mathew Barzal added when asked if he had ever seen a similar ending. “I think everybody’s breath just got taken away… I thought it was going in and it was just a miraculous play by Puli. I’m not going to be forgetting that one.”
Neither will anyone who watched it, including this writer.
“The situation that we’re in, how deep we are in the playoffs, and how important these games are, there’s probably no situation like this that I’ve been a part of before,” Pulock said. “When you can save a game like that, get the win like that, it’s a good feeling.”