If you caught the dramatic conclusion of Game 4 between the Islanders and Lightning At Nassau Coliseum, then you saw one of the best defensive plays ever in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If Marc-Andre Fleury has The Save, then Ryan Pulock is now the owner of The Block. With his team clinging to a one-goal lead, the Lightning pressed for the equalizer. Despite being shorthanded with Victor Hedman off for tripping, they managed to get Andrei Vasilevskiy off for a fifth skater. That made it five-on-five with an empty net.
There wasn’t much time left. Not with the Islanders channeling Four Corners which Kenny Albert wisely referenced Dean Smith. It looked like they’d get no crack for a third straight goal in a furious third period comeback after they spotted the Islanders three in the second period. But a funny thing happened. Nikita Kucherov was able to find Ryan McDonagh wide open one on one with Semyon Varlamov. What would happen next?
There were four seconds remaining. It would either be a tie hockey game headed to overtime or an Islanders win by the skin of their teeth. That was due to goals from postseason force Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson two and a half minutes apart that forced Barry Trotz to use his timeout with over a dozen minutes left. The three-goal lead they built thanks to superb plays resulting in goals from Josh Bailey, Mat Barzal and Matt Martin, was in serious jeopardy in those final frantic seconds. No lead is safe against these Lightning, who can strike as quickly as a Lightning bolt. Usain Bolt would approve.
Despite a lengthy shift from the Identity Line of Casey Cizikas, Martin and Cal Clutterbuck that essentially killed two minutes, here they were at the mercy of McDonagh. The former Ranger defenseman who’s had a good series, hasn’t had to be counted on for offense from Jon Cooper. But he’s made good pinches and looked for it. So, it was McDonagh versus Varlamov with the game on the line. Who would’ve thought?
An aggressive Varlamov came way out to challenge. That took away McDonagh’s first option. Improvising, he had the presence of mind to do a full spin-a-rama to get by Varlamov. With the puck on his backhand and still over a second left, it looked like McDonagh would score one of the best goals the postseason has ever seen. He went Bobby Orr and Denis Savard on Varlamov to create a glorious opportunity at scoring to force overtime.
The Islander net was vacant. McDonagh fired his backhand that seemed destined for the back of the net. It was going to sudden death. Surely, he had pulled off an incredible move. One we’d never seen him do in his time spent in the Big Apple when he was not only a defensive force, but very good offensively. He was about to become a likely hero for Tampa, who probably would’ve finished off the comeback had it gotten to overtime. Or so we thought.
Before McDonagh’s shot could go in past the goal line sending Islander fans into full panic mode, here came a diving Pulock. From out of nowhere, the solid two-way defenseman sold out to save the game for the Islanders. In a play symbolic of what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about, Pulock made a diving save and a beauty to rob McDonagh of a certain tying goal. It was astonishing. At first, I thought McDonagh had somehow hit the goalpost. How did it stay out? It was only following replays that I realized what had happened. Unbelievable.
The Block is what it’ll be forever known as to the 12,000 Islander fans who made thunderous noise as the horn sounded. That along with an unexpected, “Oh, Ohhhh”, from both Ed Olczyk and Brian Boucher, who couldn’t believe what they witnessed. As I’m sure even the biggest Long Island fan that bleeds Islanders blue and orange couldn’t even believe. This was a moment for Ryan Pulock, who was mobbed by excited teammates after his remarkable stop.
It truly was unbelievable. Pulock bailed out his goalie, who had been good in another must win game coming off a Game Three loss. This could’ve been the final home game at The Barn. Instead, it isn’t. Once again, the scrappy Islanders found a way to win the all important Game Four. They did it by turning the tables on the Lightning, who once led in shots 17-4.
A dominant second period saw the Isles score three consecutive goals. First, the quiet Bailey finally got one to go thanks to a great backhand pass from Brock Nelson. He used McDonagh as a screen by firing a rising laser between his skates and past Vasilevskiy. Then, with Barry Trotz making a good adjustment by moving up Kyle Palmieri, a Clutterbuck shot with Palmieri in front leaked right to Barzal, who deposited his sixth while Point didn’t take him. The third one came from the gritty Martin, who took a pass and rifled a perfect backhand inside the bar.
Game over? Not so fast. The one thing about the defending champs is they’re explosive. At any moment, they can erupt. Just ask both the Panthers and Hurricanes. Especially Carolina, who thought they had Game Four before the Bolts came roaring back to win 6-4. If you let up for a moment, enter at your own risk. That’s how dangerous the Lightning are. They didn’t need any power plays to come back either.
With all five Islanders back in position, here came a free skating Point into the zone. With nobody to pass the puck to, he took a good wrist shot that nicked off Andy Greene and past Varlamov. Islanders 3. Lightning 1. Then, Jon Cooper made his own counter move to one up Trotz. On a shift by the fourth line, Kucherov came out with Ross Colton and Tyler Johnson. He found Johnson wide open in the slot for a wrist shot high glove that suddenly made it 3-2. Bailey lost his check.
That quickly, the Islanders’ lead was down to one with lots of time remaining. Trotz took his timeout to settle his team down. Something he did against Boston last round. They held on to win that one. This time, Tampa continued to attack and look scary. If you were an Islander fan, the clock wasn’t moving fast enough. Even with the unreal shift by Cizikas, Martin and Clutterbuck, it didn’t feel safe. They had two good shifts in a row to dwindle the clock to over two minutes left. But anything could happen.
What if they didn’t call Hedman for a tacky tripping minor with 72 seconds to go? Who knows. The game felt over. The near 13,000 fans celebrated. But the job wasn’t done. On a traditional five-on-four, the Islanders wisely played keep away. By maintaining puck possession, it meant time would continue to run out on the desperate Lightning. But eventually, they were able to get the puck and clear it down. Off came Vasilevskiy. Out came the extra skater. It was now five-on-five.
It looked like the Islanders would protect the one-goal lead without a problem. However, any time Kucherov is out for a shift, watch out. Sure enough, the puck came to him behind the Isles’ net. Drawing attention like the superstar he is, Kucherov made a good backhand feed for McDonagh. The rest was history.
He made a great move to get around Varlamov and sent his backhand shot towards the empty Islander net. The only way it didn’t go in was a last second diving effort from Pulock to block the shot. Time ran out. The buzzer sounded. The Islanders had won this dramatic Game Four to send the series back to Tampa Bay tied at two apiece.
Wow. It was astonishing. I’ve watched plenty of playoff hockey for over 30 years. I’ve never seen a play like that. The Save by Fleury on Nick Lidstrom to preserve a one-goal win over the Red Wings in Game Seven at Joe Louis Arena allowed the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup. That was more dramatic given what was at stake. It’s hard to fathom Fleury might sit for Robin Lehner in a huge Game Four at Bell Centre later with the Golden Knights trailing the underdog Canadiens two games to one. More on that another time.
Pulock’s save was great. He saved the Islanders’ season. Now, it’s a best two of three with the pivotal Game Five tomorrow night in Tampa. Can the Isles continue their run of not losing games after falling behind 2-1? Or have they met their match? Either way, it’s been a terrific series to follow. That’s a lot to admit from a Rangers fan, who doesn’t want to see the Islanders win. I respect the way they play. How hard they work under Trotz. That kind of grit and hustle is rewarded at this time of year.
Don’t think they can win? You must be living in a cave. This was always going to be a closely fought series. It’s a rematch. I still maintain it’ll go seven. Who wins I can’t or won’t say. It’s hard hat hockey. Pulock proved it with The Block. Who wants it more? Get your popcorn ready.