After the final horn sounded, Ryan Pulock was mobbed by his New York Islanders teammates as if he were the winning goalie.
In a way, he was.
The defenseman’s sliding stop of Ryan McDonagh‘s spin-around backhand with 2.7 seconds remaining in the third period preserved a 3-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday.
Instead of heading to overtime, New York tied the best-of-7 series, with Game 5 at Tampa Bay on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“Obviously, a huge play,” Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “We’re not sitting here right now if he doesn’t do that. So, obviously, a game-saving situation.”
New York led 3-0 entering the third period, but Tampa Bay closed within 3-2 on goals by Brayden Point (3:45) and Tyler Johnson (6:43), setting the stage for the frantic final seconds.
The Lightning were shorthanded after Victor Hedman was called for tripping with 1:12 remaining but pulled goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to even the skaters at 5-on-5.
It looked like the Islanders might close the game without any drama until Ondrej Palat intercepted Pulock’s clearing attempt along the right-wing boards with seven seconds left and backhanded the puck to Nikita Kucherov to the right of the net. Kucherov redirected the puck out to McDonagh in the left circle and he suddenly had a wide-open chance to tie the game.
With Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov coming out to challenge him, the Lightning defenseman spun away from a diving Brock Nelson and appeared to have the net open in front of him when he backhanded the puck.
“I couldn’t see really anything,” McDonagh said. “I was just trying to make sure I got it toward the net. I mean, I knew the goalie was coming out and I just tried to get something down toward the net.”
Watching from the bench, Islanders forward Mathew Barzal, along with many of his teammates and coach Barry Trotz, thought McDonagh was going to score.
“I think everybody’s breath just kind of got taken away when that puck was coming,” Barzal said. “I thought it was going in and then just a miraculous play by ‘Pulie.'”
Pulock said his only goaltending experience was from playing street hockey as a kid. With Varlamov out of position, Pulock’s instincts took over and he slid into the net behind the goalie to stop McDonagh’s shot before guiding the puck safely into the left corner.
“I just tried to make myself big,” Pulock said. “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.”
Varlamov was among the first to hug Pulock after time expired. He was joined by the rest of the Islanders, who came piling off the bench as if Pulock scored an overtime goal.
“Obviously, when you hear the sound of the clock go and all the boys jump on you, it’s a good feeling,” Pulock said.
The Lightning experienced a different feeling, going from the excitement of thinking they were about to tie the game to the disappointment of the series being tied.
“I think everyone thought it was going to go in,” Johnson said. “Credit to them, they made a great save. He was able to get it.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “They’re desperate and he came in and made that save. It probably made for some pretty exciting TV, I’ll tell you that. Yeah, that was a bit of a heart-stopper at the end. Unfortunately [it] didn’t go our way.”
Trotz’s view from the bench was blocked by his standing players, so he tried to watch on the center-ice video board. Maybe that helped him remain calm.
“All I saw was ‘Nellie’ sliding and McDonagh turned and I saw ‘Varly’ was coming out to challenge and it looked like it was going in the net,” Trotz said. “Then, obviously, Pulie came through and slid across and saved the day for us, so I would say it was never in doubt.”