Usually in this series we might pick a solo player to dig into, but to start out for the Penguins/Islanders series there isn’t much of a better choice than to keep a profile together for the wonderful pair of defensemen Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock.
The term “underrated” gets thrown around a lot, usually about players who aren’t underrated at all (Nicklas Backstrom, Aleksander Barkov, etc). In this case, Pelech and Pulock fit a mold of players that excel at the highest level, yet often receive little to no widespread credit or attention. This is probably due to where they play and perhaps how they play, there aren’t any Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews style highlight reel goals here.
Just really solid play. The Pelech/Pulock pair will have a massive impact on how the Pittsburgh/New York series goes and see a heavy dose of the Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust line. If NYI doesn’t win this battle, they probably have little chance to win the series. If they do win this battle, their odds of success have improved quite a bit.
Players: Ryan Pelech and Adam Pulock
Age: 26 (both)
Pelech: 6’3, 205 pounds
Pulock: 6’2, 215 pounds
Pelech: 56 games played, 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 points, 18 penalty minutes
Pulock: 56 GP, 2G+15A, 8 PIMs
5v5 Fancy stats of the Pelech/Pulock pair (761 minutes in 2020-21, data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick)
Corsi For%: 53.7%
Goals For to Goals Against: 36 to 23 (61.02 GF%, 2.48 GF/60 to 1.81 GA/60)
Scoring Chance%: 59.2%
High Danger Scoring Chance%: 64.8%
2020-21 WAR% chart and graph:
The EV Offense and Defense is just incredibly strong, as are the abilities to defend without taking penalties themselves. As such, WAR% has Pulock and especially Pelech among the very highest rated players in the league based on this season.
While Pelech/Pulock are on the ice, the Islanders are dominant. Their team has an impressive amount of control for scoring chances in their favor, and suppress opposition chances and goals to an even higher degree of success. They tip the ice, and do some against top competition.
This pair is at the core of what the Islanders do best. They make up a vital heartbeat of the team, and are their top defenders. By a mile.
Here’s the Goals For plotted against the expected goals for. The Pelech-Pulock pair is by far the best on the team offensively:
And on the other end, here’s the defensive results. New chart, same results, it’s all about Pelech/Pulock. The other defenders are in the negative and relying on goaltending. It’s the NYI top pair that shoulders the burden of heavy TOI and drives very good results.
In a lot of ways, they’re the picture of an ideal defense pair. One is left handed (Pelech), one is a right shot (Pulock). Both have big frames. Pulock is the more traditionally physical player (team defense-high 96 hits in 2020-21), Pelech is more active with his stick (with a team defense-high 25 takeaways).
Both are of a prime age at 26 and move around the ice well as smooth skaters that can cover their areas of the zone and do so quickly. All-around their styles mesh, and they’ve been a long time pairing that has great chemistry and a ton of history to know how to play with one another and accentuate the positives.
Neither are offensive dynamos that will put up tremendous points totals, which is also a function of the team system that they play in. You won’t often see them jump up in the play, lead a rush, or force the issue offensively like, say, the Penguins ask of their defensemen. This pair is focused on defending, but still has the ability with their hands and heads to be good and smart enough to support their offensive breakouts and allow the forwards to do the heavy lifting in the offensive zone.
How the Penguins can combat them: Sidney Crosby. Jake Guentzel. Bryan Rust. All three scored 20+ goals this season, and they will be the primary focus of the Islanders’ top pair.
The Penguins need to keep doing what they did in the 2020-21 regular season against this duo. Pulock was on the ice for eight EV goals against the Pens in eight games. Pelech, nine GA. They were on ice for five and three EV goals for, respectively. Those two players in such a deep hole put the Islanders in deep trouble — and it’s no surprise that Pittsburgh won six of the eight season matchups given how much success they had scoring while Pelech and Pulock were on the ice.
By comparison, for all 48 non-Penguin games NYI played this season, Pulock and Pelech both were only on the ice for 27 EV goals against. Against the rest of the East division, shutdown. Against Pittsburgh, big trouble.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Pelech and Pulock were heavily involved and had much better success in 2019 against Pittsburgh and, the Islanders won the series.
It’s easier said than done with defenders this adept at what they do, but the Penguins need to win this battle. If the Guentzel-Crosby-Rust line is neutralized, even though the team has great depth, it still places them at a tremendous disadvantage to dig out from under.
Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are truly the towers of strength of the Islanders defense. And the Islanders are a team known for their defense. NYI will lean heavily on them and their individual performances will be imperative to the New York effort. As usual, it’s a big challenge ahead for the Crosby line.