The New York Islanders like to rely on defenceman Ryan Pulock’s blistering point shot to help generate offence.
On Friday, they advanced to the first round of the NHL playoffs courtesy of Pulock using his stick to make a clutch defensive play and secure a preliminary round series-clinching 5-1 win over Florida in Game 4 of their best-of-five series.
Some 25 seconds after Brock Nelson scored to put the Islanders up 3-1 at the 12:01 mark of the second period, Pulock dived across the crease to prevent Panthers leading scorer Aleksander Barkov from scoring into an open net.
“To me, it was one of those defining moments,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said of Pulock managing to stretch out his stick and deflect Barkov’s backhander over the net. “That was a 4-by-6 open net, and he was able to get his stick in there. Those are the plays, the commitment, the extra effort that wins you those inches. We had a lot of that today.”
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Anthony Beauvillier scored twice in staking the Islanders to a 2-0 first-period lead, and Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal had a goal an assist each in a game the Islanders never trailed. Semyon Varlamov stopped 24 shots, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored an empty-netter, and the Eastern Conference’s seventh-seeded Islanders bounced back from a 3-2 loss in Game 3 on Wednesday.
New York will open the best-of-seven first-round series next week against a yet to be determined opponent.
Mike Hoffman scored his Florida-leading third goal and fifth point of the series, while Sergei Bobrovsky proved inconsistent in stopping 33 shots.
The 10th-seeded Panthers wound up one-and-done for their fifth consecutive post-season appearance, and eliminated for the second straight time by the Islanders. New York needed six games to eliminate the Panthers in a best-of-seven first-round series in 2016.
Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since making its first post-season appearance in 1996, when the team reached the Stanley Cup Final only to be swept by Colorado.
“That was a really, really tough bounce,” said Barkov, referring to his missed opportunity. “It would’ve been a huge goal for us. Obviously, you look back on it, it should’ve been a goal like 10 times out of 10. But the defenceman made a really good play, and I was just unlucky.”
Pulock, who had an assist on Beauvillier’s second goal, said he was merely acting out of desperation.
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“We had a good little battle going on in front, and he was able to spin off me and I ended up on the wrong side,” Pulock said. “I got pretty fortunate because it ended up being a pretty big play in the game. I think after that, we really started to take over.”
The Panthers managed just four more shots over the final 11:30 of the second period in a game they were outshot 38-25.
The Islanders are making their second consecutive playoff appearance in two years under Trotz, and only sixth since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. New York swept Pittsburgh in the first round last year before being swept by Carolina in the second.
‘Move on and get better for next season’
The Islanders caught the Panthers napping in building a 2-0 lead on Beauvillier’s two goals.
New York’s 2015 first-round draft pick opened the scoring 11:33 in when he shovelled a bad-angle, no-look backhander from the right of the net and had the puck bank in off the inside of Bobrovsky’s right pad.
Some four minutes later, Barzal drew most of the Panthers’ attention by skating the puck up the right wing, and set up Beauvillier, who was driving in alone up the middle.
“I tried to do my best. I tried to stay focused and tried to stay with it,” Bobrovsky said, acknowledging the mistake he made in allowing the opening goal. “We have to learn and move on and get better for next season.”
The offensive-minded Panthers had difficulty generating goals against the tight-checking Islanders. After finishing sixth in the NHL in averaging 3.3 goals per game, Florida scored just seven this series — and only three in even-strength situations.