When the puck drops on the New York Islanders Stanley Cup Semifinals series with the Tampa Bay Lightning there will be one part of their game that will make or break the series.
Everyone knows the Islanders can score. They’ve scored 43 goals during the playoffs, which is the highest among any team in the postseason. And everyone knows that the Islanders are a strong defensive team, that’s their bread and butter.
What will shape the series won’t be whether or not Mathew Barzal lights up the lamp or Oliver Wahlstrom returns to the lineup. Don’t get me wrong those things will matter, of course, but when it’s all said and done it will be the play of the New York Islanders goaltenders that will make or break the Islanders’ quest for a fifth Stanley Cup.
It’s been that way since the playoffs began.
When the Islanders needed life in the First Round, head coach Barry Trotz turned to Ilya Sorokin in net after a couple of bumpy starts from Semyon Varlamov. When Sorokin struggled early in the Islanders series against Boston in the Second Round, the return of Varlamov and his strong play helped swing the pendulum for New York.
“Goaltending has been huge. I think you look at every team that is left and all of them have a top goalie, maybe even top two goalies,” Scott Mayfield said on Saturday. “It’s a huge piece. It’s important five on five, it’s important for the kill. With either goalie we have in net, Varly or Sorokin, we’re happy with it and we’re extremely confident to play in front of them. We know what they can do and I think they’ve stolen a couple of games, that’s for sure. It’s been huge for us.”
There was no better example of just how crucial a goaltender can be than in the First Round against Pittsburgh when Sorokin made 48 saves as the Islanders stole a 3-2 Game 5 win in double overtime. They would go on to win Game 6 handily after that.
Varlamov, while he surrendered the first goal on a number of occasions, produced similar game-saving or stealing performances against Boston.
But New York won’t be going up against a young Tristan Jarry that was clearly shaken by the time Game 6 rolled around. And they won’t face a Tuukka Rask who was clearly hurt more than Boston had led on as the series came to a close.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is a Vezina Trophy finalist for a reason. Not even Trotz could disagree over the merits that Vasilevskiy had to earn the nomination, even as the Islanders head coach lobbied for Varlamov to be among those candidates.
His performances in the playoffs have been top-notch and with a .934 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average he’s tough to beat. That means on the other end of the ice, Varlamov (or Sorokin) will have to match that performance.
This also means among the already tough choices Trotz has to make during the playoffs, which goaltender he puts in net will take on extra significance. So does that put any added pressure on the New York Islanders bench boss?
“Of course they do,” Trotz responded. “Any decision, if I make a right decision or a wrong decision, you get criticized for it one way or complimented on it. Yeah, there’s some pressure, but it’s belief and understanding.”
As for what he is looking for when it comes to choosing one netminder over the other, Trotz explained that it comes down to two things. The eye test and then the style of the team.
Trotz recalled his experience in Washington when he explained what he meant by the “style of the team.”
“It’s funny some teams play different with different goalies in,” Trotz said. “I know my time in Washington, Philipp Grubauer, he was a really good goaltender. You’re looking at him. You’re watching him and the eye test was saying this guy is on. But we could never score when he was in the net, even though we had a pretty good offense. We never gave him much run support and then Brayden (Holtby) would go in and we’d give him lots of run support.
“It was funny that way for a while the first year and then the next year it sort of flip-flopped a little bit. We look at the other teams’ style, we look analytically where their heat maps are, where they shoot from, how they get the pucks to certain areas and that sort of thing.”
The decision is a well-thought-out one, according to Trotz, and there is no question so far the methodical approach he and his coaching staff have employed has been working.
However, against a high-powered offense like Tampa Bay and a Vezina finalist in Vasilevskiy, that decision-making process will be put to the ultimate test. Its effectiveness will ultimately help sway the series for better or worse.