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Ryan Pulock says COVID-19 pandemic helped forge great connections among Islanders

The Islanders' Mathew Barzal, left, celebrates his first-period

The Islanders' Mathew Barzal, left, celebrates his first-period goal against the Rangers with Ryan Pulock at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 14. Credit: AP/Bruce Bennett

There will come a time for deeper reflection and appreciation, maybe five years from now, maybe when his career has ended. But Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock knows he’s lucky to have played as much hockey as he has through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With so many other aspects of daily life interrupted or altered, it’s brought a semblance of normalcy.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the NHL's decision to pause last season on March 12 before ultimately resuming play in postseason bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton through August and September.

"Everyone is going to look back on these years," Pulock said in a private chat with Newsday this past week. "Hopefully this is the last time that we have to deal with this in our lifetime. The playoffs, playing in a bubble and hanging out with each other for 50-some days. Those are some memories that we will remember. If you look at the year, it’s pretty fortunate that we’ve been able to play the amount of hockey that we have."

The Islanders reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 while playing in empty arenas in the two Canadian cities. Pulock expects that experience, and navigating through the pandemic, will bind this group together forever.

"This group has been together for a few years now," he said. "Last summer really pulled everyone together. The guys that came in, [Jean-Gabriel] Pageau and [Andy] Greene, I think having them in that playoff run did bring us together. I think we always will be connected because of that situation."

Even though this shortened 56-game regular season is being played in the home arenas, not in sequestered bubbles, there still are concessions to the pandemic. All games are within the division — often in multi-game series — to limit travel, and fans are just starting to re-enter the buildings.

In appreciation of their work and sacrifices during the pandemic, the Islanders will host 1,000 Northwell Health front-line workers for Thursday’s game against the Devils, marking this season’s first game in front of an audience at Nassau Coliseum.

The relentless, condensed schedule seems to have benefited the Islanders, whose blue-collar work ethic suits the playoff-like feel to each game.

"I think our style and our structure of how we can defend and kind of frustrate teams, it’s kind of like a playoff style," Pulock said. "Playing little mini-playoff series against teams, I think maybe that helps us. We’ve done a good job of making adjustments we need to make.

"Every game is so important when it comes to the standings. It’s a different experience. I kind of like playing the same team back-to-back. But obviously, I think we all would enjoy if things got back to normal now."

No. 1,700

Barry Trotz will become the third NHL coach to reach 1,700 games on Tuesday night against the Bruins at Nassau Coliseum. Trotz, who also has coached the Predators and Capitals, has been behind an NHL bench since 1998.

"It’s just extremely impressive," Anders Lee said. "It says a lot about Barry and his work ethic and who he is as a person. I think anyone that’s worked with him or played for him understands how genuine a guy he is and how much everyone means to him. Kudos to him for everything that he’s accomplished and has worked so hard for."

Scotty Bowman, whose career spanned 1968-2002 with five teams, is the all-time NHL leader in games coached with 2,141. The Panthers’ Joel Quenneville, who has led four teams since 1997, will coach his 1,730th game on Tuesday.

Mr. Gretzky

Walter Gretzky, No. 99’s father, passed away on Thursday at age 82. And while the elder Gretzky never played professional hockey, he was nearly as well-regarded around the NHL as Wayne, his Hall of Fame son.

Trotz said he never had the pleasure of meeting Walter Gretzky but had a deep respect for him and all he did in teaching his son how to play the game.

"My condolences go out to the Gretzky family," Trotz said. "You hear all the good stories. I don’t think there’s a bad word that has ever been spoken about Walter Gretzky. He’s probably the hockey dad. I think he was the one that really inspired the outdoor rink for so many. His passing hurts the hockey community."

Trotz said he took a moment to address Gretzky’s passing at Friday’s practice.

"We told all our players, just a reminder through this pandemic, make sure you call your parents tonight. You never know."

New York Sports