Ryan Pulock made the play of the playoffs (so far) in the Islanders’ Game 4 win on Saturday night, stopping Ryan McDonagh‘s potential game-tying shot right on the goal line as time expired.
Had McDonagh’s shot gone in the net, it could have been one of the most famous goals in Stanley Cup playoff history.
Instead, it could be remembered as a legendary defensive play depending on how this series goes over the next three games. If the Islanders win and turn it into a championship? That is the kind of play that leads the championship DVD and gets replayed for decades. It probably gets a nickname or a title.
It also continued what has been an outstanding season (and postseason) for the Islanders’ top defense pairing of Pulock and Adam Pelech. Along with his game-saving defensive play, Pulock has already scored four goals this postseason, including three game-winning goals, as they look to snap their lengthy Cup Final drought.
That duo is a huge part of the Islanders success the past couple of years.
[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
One of the things that throws people about the Islanders’ winning ways the past three years is they are not built like a team that consistently goes on deep postseason runs. Teams that do that tend to have a lot of star power throughout their lineup. At least one top scorer. Usually two. At least one Norris Trophy-caliber defender that can take over a game. Maybe an elite goalie. Outside of Mathew Barzal, and at times the goaltending, they do not really have that sort of roster. What they have, though, is a very complete roster that does not really have any major weakness. Just about everybody can contribute, and there are not really many passengers along for the ride that can easily be exploited. Sometimes that can be just as important as having a couple of superstars.
The Islanders’ calling card is their defensive play thanks to a three-year run where they have been the league’s toughest team to score against. They have done that without having one of the league’s elite individual defenders on their roster. They don’t have a Victor Hedman, or a Cale Makar, or an Alex Pietrangelo, or a Charlie McAvoy, or any other top-line defender that gets the headlines and Norris votes.
Despite that, they still have one of the league’s best and most dominant defense pairings with the Pelech-Pulock duo. And dominant is a pretty good way to describe them, especially with the season they have had this year.
Some numbers to ponder
During the 2020-21 season there were 47 defense pairings across the NHL that logged at least 400 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together.
Here is where the Pelech-Pulock duo ranked among that group in some pretty significant categories (via Natural Stat Trick)…
- Shot attempt percentage: 9th (53.4 percent)
- Shot attempts against/60 minutes: 7th (48.1)
- Goal differential: 9th (37-23; 61.6 percent)
- Goals against/60 minutes: 12th (1.78)
- Scoring chance differential: 1st (59.1 percent)
- High-danger scoring chance differential: 1st (64.6 percent)
- High-danger scoring chances against/60 minutes: 3rd (7.2)
- Expected goal differential: 1st (59.9 percent)
- Expected goals against/60 minutes: 2nd (1.68)
Basically, almost no other defense pairing in the entire NHL does a better job of outshooting, outchancing, outscoring, and stopping opposing offenses than this pairing.
On their own, neither one is going to finish as one of the top point-producing defenders in the league. You probably will not see them at the top of many Norris ballots. But together they have helped form a defense pairing that the Islanders can lean on.
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They have played well together over the past couple of seasons, but their game has reached an entirely new level of defensive play this season. That includes in this current series against Tampa Bay where they have (so far) played their best hockey of the playoffs. With Pelech and Pulock on the ice against the Lightning the Islanders have tilted the ice in their favor, even in significant minutes against the Lightning’s top line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.
Along with being great on the ice, they have also been a bargain against the salary cap, accounting for just $6.6M in salary cap space this season. That will soon change, however, as Pulock can be an unrestricted free agent after next season while Pelech is a restricted free agent after this season. Given their on-ice value, production, and the fact they are still both just 25 and 26, respectively, getting them signed long-term should be a top priority for the Islanders’ front office.
They may not be superstars in the traditional sense. But they certainly played like it this season.
ISLANDERS VS. LIGHTNING (Series tied 2-2) – series livestream link
Game 1: Islanders 2, Lightning 1
Game 2: Lightning 4, Islanders 2
Game 3: Lightning 2, Islanders 1
Game 4: Islanders 3, Lightning 2
Game 5: Mon. June 21: Islanders at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 6: Wed. June 23: Lightning at Islanders, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 7: Fri. June 25: Islanders at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.