The last time Ryan Pulock recalls playing goalie, it was in street hockey in Grandview, Man., the rural community where he grew up west of Dauphin, not far from the Saskatchewan border.
We’re guessing the streets were paved and everything.
Plenty of goalies have won Conn Smythe trophies by leading their teams to Stanley Cups. But the best save of this post-season was made by Pulock, the underrated 26-year-old defenceman for the New York Islanders.
With his team frantically clutching a 3-2 lead and the chance to even its Stanley Cup semifinal series against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Pulock sprawled like Chico Resch across the otherwise vacant New York goalmouth to rob Ryan McDonagh a second before the game ended.
After the puck came to him unchecked in the slot, McDonagh made a spin-o-rama move that beat Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov but couldn’t beat Pulock, who blocked the Lightning defenceman’s backhand and shepherded the bouncing puck to the side of the net.
“I played a little goalie in maybe street hockey but that's about it,” Pulock, 26, told reporters after the biggest save of his career. “I just tried to make myself big. I saw it coming in and I got a glove on it. It did kind of rattle there and I just tried to take away all the net as much as I could and just push it to the side and not let it get through me.
“You hear the sound of the clock go and all the boys jump on you, it's a good feeling.”
Saved by the bell. It preserved a victory and allowed the Islanders to tie the series 2-2 after New York, which was outstanding during a three-goal second period, wobbled early in the third when Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson scored goals three minutes apart to cleave a 3-0 deficit to a single goal.
“I was actually watching on the Jumbotron and I saw (McDonagh) kind of do the spin-o-rama and saw the net was wide open, and your heart sinks there for a second,” Islanders’ wrecking-ball winger Matt Martin said after scoring what turned out to be the winning goal. “A helluva play by Pools to kind of save the day there. That's the kind of desperation that all our D play with, I think all our players play with in general. A huge play.”
New York forward Josh Bailey, who scored during the second-period surge but also made a weak fly-by check on Johnson before his goal, said of Pulock: “That's a special play. I think it was just a great play by him -- a game-saving play, obviously. Huge.”
Yes, it was. You’ll be seeing it on highlight reels for years – or at least until something tops it in Game 5 Monday in Tampa.
But there is also a certain irony that such a dazzling and unusual play shines a spotlight on Pulock, whose understated but excellent two-way game probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Pulock and defence partner Adam Pelech draw most of the hardest matchups for coach Barry Trotz. In this series, that means defending regularly against Point and Nikita Kucherov.
Depite the heavy lifting, Pulock posted positive possession numbers during the regular season that included a shots-for percentage of 51.2 and an expected-goals rate of 56.9.
Pulock also has a bomb of a shot on the Islanders’ power play, and over the last four years has led New York defencemen in scoring with 121 points in 274 games. That he gets only modest attention outside his own market makes Pulock wonderfully symbolic of the Islanders’ team, which has no flashy stars beyond Mathew Barzal but just played its 46th playoff game in the last three seasons.
The Islanders’ 27 playoff wins during that time are second only to the Lightning’s 28, which means New York will at least catch Tampa if it advances to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final since 1984.
“The biggest stage is always the playoffs, and if you play well in the playoffs, you're going to get noticed and you're going to get the recognition because those are the hardest games,” Trotz said. “We've been in the playoffs here the last couple years, we've played a lot of games, so I think (Pulock) is starting to get the recognition that he deserves as a good, young player in the league. All the other players that are playing, they're getting the same recognition because this is the big stage. You’re down to the last four teams here.”
Varlamov, who stopped Kucherov from the slot with about five-and-a-half minutes remaining, was outstanding in the first period when his team was outshot 11-4. The Islanders’ second period was one of their best of the playoffs as they dominated the Lightning, generated 17 shots and got goals from Bailey, Barzal and Martin.
But when it looked like the Lightning were already on the plane back to Tampa, Point scored at 3:45 of the third period and Johnson at 6:43, spurring Trotz to use a timeout to calm his team. No one was calm in the final seconds when Pulock made a “block” for the ages.
“It's playoffs and nothing should surprise anybody, really,” Trotz said. “That's the great thing about our game: We can bring you out of your seats right to the last minute.”