The Islanders are only a few weeks away from filling out a playoff lineup for Game 1 of a first round matchup, but questions remain as to just what mix of guys gives the team its best chance to win a series for the first time in 23 years.
Chief among these is on defense. Provided they get through the next seven games unscathed, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, and Thomas Hickey are locks. That leaves Brian Strait and Ryan Pulock duking it out to grab the sixth d-man assignment while Marek Zidlicky works his way back from injury.
"[Pulock] knows that when he first got here, when I talked to him, you're going to play some games and you're going to be in and out," head coach Jack Capuano told the New York Post's Brett Cyrgalis, who tackled this very issue. "It's a great experience for him, just being able to practice with our guys, working on his feet. He's still a young kid. That's what it's about, too. I just like the fact that he's getting better every day. That's a big thing for me."
On the surface, the difference between Pulock and Strait isn't that noticeable, which is a testament to Pulock. He has effectively played as well as a veteran with 179 games of NHL experience. At even strength, the two practically have the same Individual Corsi (Strait 9.50, Pulock 9.31) and Fenwick (Strait 5.97, Pulock 5.39) per 60 minutes. What it ultimately might come down to is who is more likely to be a difference maker. And to me, that has Pulock's name written all over it.
I just don't think Strait does enough to warrant benching Pulock come playoff time. The defense is essentially a wash. A third-pairing defenseman is only going to see 10-12 minutes or so in a playoff game anyway, and Pulock has looked steady enough that you really have to squint to see differences. But where Pulock's skillset pushes things over the top for me is on offense.
That monster shot of his is such a weapon, and it could be a game-changer in the postseason. One crazy carom or a fortuitous rebound can completely change an entire series, and having a guy who can rifle it from the point can create more space for the forwards down low, particularly on the power play. We saw the Isles' power play struggles derail their season last year in their seven-game loss to the Capitals. In light of that, I just don't see how you can bench Pulock.
My sense is both guys will get an opportunity, and I'm aware that putting Pulock into a playoff lineup with less than 20 games of NHL experience is the epitome of trial-by-fire. But the great ones rise to the occasion, and I do think Pulock has a chance to be a stalwart on the Isles blue line for years to come. It might be time to see what he can do on the biggest stage of them all.