Sometimes, you wonder how we survived a world before YouTube, before highlights on demand, before video streaming.
In, say, 1950 — or even 2000 — if you happened to see what Ryan Pulock did live Saturday night, then you were lucky. You’d get some replays. You’d marvel at how the Islanders defenseman crawled along the goal line in the final second — literally, with :01 left in regulation — and managed to set aside a brilliant spin-o-rama shot from Tampa’s Ryan McDonagh after McDonagh’s last-ditch shot slithered past Isles goalie Semyon Varlamov.
If you weren’t watching? If you were watching Nets-Bucks Game 7, or “In the Heights” on HBO Max, or if you were at a family barbecue … well, you could read about it. You could hear about it secondhand. Maybe you’d happen to be watching “SportsCenter” when the replay came on there. Dark Ages stuff, right there.
Because I have seen the play almost 50 times by now. I can’t stop. It is one of the most unique plays — factoring its unusualness, and the gravity of the moment, and the astonishing athletic instincts involved — I’ve ever seen.
And as I kept watching, I posed a question to Twitter. Twitter isn’t always the most enjoyable place, but on nights like this it can feel like the world’s biggest — and best — sports bar. I asked: “I’m not sure what the equivalent of it would be in another sport?”
Much to my delight, the candidates came pouring in.
A few hockey fans immediately pointed to ex-Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury, who in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals made one of the most famous saves in hockey history, somehow stoning Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom from point-blank range with 1.5 seconds left to save the Cup for Pittsburgh. The timing puts it in the conversation — but Fleury was paid to stop pucks for a living. Pulock isn’t.
Soccer fans weighed in with a couple of quality comparisons — Abby Wambach’s 2011 header in extra time that forced OT of the U.S.’ World Cup match with Brazil, and Peter Schmeikel of Manchester United impossibly saving a key game against Newcastle late in the 1999 Premiership. Google it (as I had to) if you’ve never seen it.
Still: Wambach simply did her job, however excellently, however timely. Same with Schmeikel. Both were stunning. Pulock’s was different.
It was different than some other excellent nominees, too, starting with Willie Mays’ forever catch of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, and Ron Swoboda’s miracle catch in Game 4 of the ’69 Series (Howie Rose’s personal favorite). Even Andrew Benitendi’s game-ending and game-saving catch against Houston in the 2018 ALCS, and Lorenzo Charles’ dunk-at-the buzzer to win the ’83 NCAA for N.C. State, and LeBron James’ otherworldly block of Andre Igoudala at the end of Game 6 of the ’16 NBA Finals fall under that umbrella: great moments, great plays, but well within the bounds of plausibility.
(Special mention to the Yankees, who somehow Sunday pulled off a second ninth-inning 5-4-3 triple play in the space of 31 days; never seen THAT before.)
That leaves these eight candidates, which I’ll divide into two categories in ascending order for my particular rank of preference.
UNFORGETTABLE, BUT NOT ESPECIALLY UNIQUE
- Endy Chavez’ catch on Scott Rolen’s fly ball — which, yes, outfielders do all the time, but came at such an extraordinary Game 7 moment it deserves special mention … and also will be sadly relevant to Islanders fans if they don’t wind up winning this series.
- Malcolm Butler’s end-zone interception of Russell Wilson that clinched Super Bowl XLIX. Yes, Butler is a defensive back but the moment and the play deserve special mention.
- Chris Davis’ 109-yard return for Auburn off a missed field goal at the horn vs. Alabama in the 2013 Iron Bowl. Not the first time for a play like that. But the stakes (as well as late Auburn play-by-play man Rod Bramblett’s call)? I defy you to watch just once.
- The Rams’ Mike Jones tackling the Titans’ Kevin Dyson on the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV. Yes, Jones was paid to tackle but … jeez, that single play won a championship.
UNFORGETTABLE, AND GOOD LUCK EVER SEEING IT AGAIN
- Lou Piniella’s deke of Rick Burleson in the ninth inning of the ’78 playoff with Boston. Piniella lost Jerry Remy’s line drive in the sun but had the poise (and guts) to convince Burleson he had a bead on it, keeping Burleson from advancing to third — where he would’ve scored the tying run on Jim Rice’s long fly ball.
- The Derek Jeter flip play, which kept the Yankees’ alive in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS in Oakland. Some dismiss this as luck, or the recklessness of Jeremy Giambi not sliding; but Jeter was still in the right place to make a play that saved a season. Also: When’s the other time you ever saw that play? Ever?
- The David Tyree helmet catch, which technically was a quarterback completing a pass to a wide receiver and as such doesn’t sound like much … but when you consider lead-footed Eli Manning escaped a jail-break pass rush, and Tyree made the catch — important point here — WITH HIS HELMET, … yeah, this one belongs.
- The Immaculate Reception. The granddaddy of them all. A desperate heave from Terry Bradshaw. A bone-crushing hit by Jack Tatum (when he may or may not have also touched the ball, keeping the play legal). And then a rookie named Franco Harris arriving from nowhere to pluck the ball of his shoetops and dash into immortality.
Not bad company for Ryan Pulock.