Ryan Pulock was all that stood between the puck and a potentially devastating result for the Islanders.
With goalie Semyon Varlamov out of position, the Lightning’s Ryan McDonagh launched a spinning backhander with a second left in regulation that headed toward an open net.
"Your heart sinks there for a second," Matt Martin said. "A heck of a play by Pulls to save the day there. That’s the kind of desperation all our players play with. A huge play. A game-saving situation."
Pulock, with only street hockey experience as a netminder, expanded his 6-2, 215-pound frame, got his glove on the shot and knocked it away from danger. Then the buzzer sounded on the Islanders’ 3-2 win in Game 4 on Saturday night, evening the NHL semifinal series at two games apiece and guaranteeing at least one more playoff game at Nassau Coliseum.
Pulock’s teammates mobbed him. "That’s a special play," Josh Bailey said. "Game-saving play. Huge."
Depending on how the rest of this playoff run goes, it could become the best defensive play in Islanders history.
"McDonagh got a puck walking down and Varly came out and challenged," Pulock said of the last of his three blocked shots. "He made a heck of a play with the spin-o-rama and the net was open. I just tried to make myself big and take it away. You hear the sound of the clock going. All the boys jump on you. It’s a good feeling."
"I just tried to get something on net," McDonagh said. "Great play by their defenseman. Desperation and he comes up with a huge block."
Islanders coach Barry Trotz said he had not seen a game end like that in the playoffs.
"But it’s the playoffs, and nothing should surprise anybody, really," he said. "That’s the great thing about our game. We can bring you out of your seats right until the last minute."
The Islanders scored three goals while dominating the second period and then withstood a frantic comeback attempt in the third by the Lightning.
The Islanders rallied from 2-1 deficits against the Penguins in the first round and the Bruins in the second. Game 5 is Monday night at Amalie Arena. Game 6, now necessary, will be back at the Coliseum on Wednesday night.
Varlamov made 28 saves, none bigger than denying Nikita Kucherov’s one-timer from the slot at 14:24 of the third period. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 27 shots.
The third period certainly was heart-stopping for the Islanders as the Lightning quickly cut their lead to 3-2.
Brayden Point extended his goal streak to seven games, beating Varlamov off the rush at 3:45. Tyler Johnson followed with another snipe at 6:43 as the Islanders struggled defensively.
But Trotz called a timeout after Johnson’s goal and the Islanders resumed playing a more structured game.
"I didn’t have to say a lot," Trotz said. "This group is a pretty mature group. I just said, ‘Listen, we have 10 minutes to go. We’ve been here before. Let’s just take a deep breath and worry about taking care of business.’ "
Bailey gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 5:30 of a one-sided second period. Brock Nelson found him coming off the bench and cutting to the slot.
The Islanders made it 2-0 at 13:46 of the period as Mathew Barzal easily knocked in a rebound after Vasilevskiy could not control Cal Clutterbuck’s initial shot.
The Islanders, who held a 17-9 shot advantage in the period, continued to hem in the Lightning, and Martin’s backhander at 17:57 made it 3-0.
Trotz, who has steadfastly insisted that pesky Leo Komarov works best with Barzal and Jordan Eberle, switched Kyle Palmieri to the top line four shifts into the first period. Komarov was flip-flopped to Palmieri’s spot on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s left wing along with Travis Zajac.
Trotz alternated how he used his left wings in the third period.
"It’s something I’ve been contemplating each game," he said. "These are going to be low-scoring games. I don’t think we can get into a track meet with this team. They finish so well."