Let’s just say that Ryan Pulock’s win-saving play as the clock expired in the Islanders’ 3-2 victory over the Lightning in Game 4 Saturday night was incredibly on-brand for the team.
Because in a pivotal, must-win contest to even the Stanley Cup semifinal series before heading back to Tampa Bay, the Islanders were able to pull out a win behind a disciplined play that took immense focus and sheer willpower.
As the scoreboard ticked down to its final four seconds, Ryan McDonagh evaded a lunge from Brock Nelson with a spin-o-rama move that sent the puck at a wide-open net while Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov desperately ventured out of his crease to challenge the Lightning defenseman.
But in swooped Pulock, who dropped to his knees and got his right glove on the puck before it could cross the goal line.
It was a quintessential Islanders play. There was no quit, no doubt, just a gutsy play that preserved a crucial victory.
“That’s the kind of desperation all our D play with,” Matt Martin said of Pulock’s heroics in Game 4. “I think all our players play with [desperation] in general. Just a huge play. We’re not sitting here right now if he doesn’t do that. Obviously, a game-saving situation.”
Had McDonagh’s backhanded shot gone in and sent the game to overtime, the entire trajectory of the series could’ve changed. The Islanders could’ve been traveling back to Tampa with their season on the line if the Lightning finished the job in OT after their third-period comeback.
But the Islanders aren’t a team that looks ahead, or looks back. The Islanders are a team that stays in the moment, and that’s why Pulock was right where he needed to be in that moment.
“That’s how our team has success,” said Josh Bailey, who scored the first of the Islanders’ three goals in the second period Saturday. “Different nights, different guys are stepping up and you need that in the postseason if you’re going to make a run.”
Head coach Barry Trotz wanted to see more “grunt” goals from his team, and they delivered. Facing a Lightning squad that is as equally defensively savvy as they are, the Islanders have recognized that pretty goals are going to be few and far between.
So the Islanders were aggressive around Tampa Bay’s net and focused on creating traffic in front of it. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Islanders created six rebounds in Game 4 – three of which came from Cal Clutterbuck. They were relentless around the crease, which just may be the only way to even remotely rattle Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is a Vezina Trophy finalist and anticipated winner of the top goalie award.
“You really have to will yourself in there,” Trotz said. “If you want to be a lightweight and play on the perimeter, you’re going to have no success against these guys. I thought there was a better commitment from us to at least make it harder on them on the inside. I thought we did and we got rewarded for it.”