PITTSBURGH — It was just over four months ago when Adam Pelech was made a healthy scratch for the third time this season, as the Islanders defenseman was trying to find his game. Now, coach Barry Trotz has entrusted him with one of the Islanders’ biggest responsibilities at the biggest time of year — being a shutdown pair with partner Ryan Pulock, tasked with stopping Sidney Crosby.
The two have done just that, carrying most of the matchup load thus far as Crosby has been held without a point to go with a minus-4 rating while the Islanders have a chance to complete the sweep of their first-round series with a win in Game 4 here on Tuesday night.
“I know I met with Adam a few times, and I sat him out a couple times. There was a consistency level I knew was there, he just had to find it,” Trotz said after Monday’s practice. “I think it was the second or third meeting, I expressed myself on what I truly believe that he can become. He’s worked on a couple things from a consistency aspect. More mentally than physically.
“I think he’s a very caring player, and a lot of times those caring players have trouble with letting it go a little bit.”
Over the final few months of the regular season, Pelech has been paired with Pulock almost exclusively and they have turned into the Islanders strongest and most consistent defensive unit. So it wasn’t a surprise when the two found out they were getting the Crosby matchup.
“They just mentioned it before the series started, but for us, I guess over the past few months, we have been playing against the other top lines,” Pelech said. “So it’s something we’ve become used to and it’s an exciting challenge for any ‘D’ pair to play against a player like him.”
It is also a source of pride that Crosby has been shut down, with the two-time Hart Trophy winner unable to find much time and space to make plays. Crosby’s left-winger Jake Guentzel, who scored 40 goals during the regular season and earned himself a five-year, $30 million contract that starts next season, has not been able to register a point either.
“I think you just approach it like any other game,” Pelech said. “But [Crosby] is also a great player, so you have to give him a lot of respect, you have to know where he is at all times and make sure you’re between him and the net. Especially when he’s out there, don’t cheat to offense, just play sound defensively, be reliable. I guess that’s what we’ve been trying to do this series.”
The two 24-year-old defensemen have been linked for a while, as Pelech was taken in the third round (No. 65 overall) in 2012 and Pulock was taken with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. They played for AHL Bridgeport for the better part of four years, with former general manager Garth Snow constantly mentioning both as the future of the Islanders blue line.
Now they’re here, and now they’re the pair that’s helping to shut down Crosby.
“I think [Pelech] feels confidence that I trust his game, and that helps his confidence,” Trotz said. “He’s played extremely well and they’ve been a good pair.”