As it became more and more apparent that, yes, the NHL was going to be able to resume play after pausing its season on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan Pulock reached out to his Islanders’ top-pair defense partner, Adam Pelech, with a simple question.
“When we all heard that there’s a possibility that we were going to come back, I sent him a text just like, ‘Are you going to be ready?’” Pulock said on Tuesday with the Islanders having a chance to clinch their first berth in the Eastern Conference finals since 1993 in that night’s Game 5 of their second-round series at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll be ready and I feel good,’” Pulock added. “He’s a big part of the team. He’s been a big part of the success we’ve had here. When we found out that those guys who were hurt were all ready to come back, we knew it would give us the best chance to have success and it was big for us.”
Pelech and Pulock’s steady defensive play and Pelech’s postseason emergence as the no-doubt-about-it best shutdown option has been a key factor in the Islanders winning 10 of their first 13 games in potentially their deepest playoff run in 27 years.
Pelech suffered an Achilles tendon injury during pregame, off-ice warmups on Jan. 2. At the time, the questions centered not on whether Pelech would be able to return during the season but whether he would be ready for next season’s training camp.
But Pelech began skating on his own during the season’s pause, then was able to join his teammates for the start of small-group, voluntary workouts at the team’s facility on June 8.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Pelech said. “I think about it quite often. In January, when I got hurt. I thought my season was over. I’m lucky to have a chance to play in the playoffs with my teammates. I didn’t think that was a possibility this year so I’m just trying to make the most of it. I’m really glad to be here.”
Pelech also chipped in with four assists in the first 13 postseason games. But what’s been most noticeable is his defensive positioning and strength, both along the walls and defending the front of the crease.
And Pelech entered Tuesday’s potential clincher against the Flyers having been called for only one minor penalty, a first-period boarding call in the Islanders’ first postseason game, a 2-1 win over the Panthers on Aug. 1.
Often, Pelech uses deft stickwork to break up plays.
“When we first identified him, he probably wasn’t mentally ready for those big moments,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz of his first impressions of Pelech after taking over the team in 2018. “I think he’s grown into that role.”
Pelech, who turned 26 on Aug. 16, was a third-round pick in 2012 who spent two more seasons in junior hockey after being drafted and did not stick in the NHL for good until 2017-18, Doug Weight’s final season as Islanders coach.
But Pelech’s game has blossomed under Trotz in direct relation to how his confidence has grown as an NHL player.
“Confidence is huge for any player and, last season, maybe I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts,” Pelech said. “With Barry, he made sure that I knew what was expected of me and what I could do to get in the lineup every day and be a productive member of the team. I worked hard and continued to do the things that were asked of me and things have been going well lately.”