Once the realigned divisions were set this season, the New York Islanders found themselves in the toughest division. They knew they would have to continue where they left off.
Head coach Barry Trotz and his team would have to play their shutdown-style defense to finish in playoff position. Their goaltenders, veteran Semyon Varlamov and rookie phenom Ilya Sorokin would need to be a strong tandem for this team to garner success.
Unfortunately, the Islanders have stumbled out of the gate with a 3-4-2 record, which is good for dead-last in a tight East Division. While the offense has struggled to score (2.11GF/GP), the defense and the goaltending has been strong enough to give the team a chance to win most nights.
Semyon Varlamov has started six of the Islanders’ nine games this season and he has looked like the same Varlamov we saw in the bubble. After setting a new Islanders’ playoff shutout record, he started off this NHL season with back-to-back shutouts (120:00), breaking Rick DiPietro’s shutout record of 115:35 minutes (2003-04) to kick off the year.
Three starts in, Varlamov was the best goaltender in the NHL. He was undefeated, allowing 0.33 goals per game, with a save percentage close to .990, with two shutouts. However, over his last three games, he has allowed 4.66 goals per game and has gone winless. Two of the three losses came against a Washington Capitals team without their top four players, including Alex Ovechkin.
For the first time all season, we saw Varlamov struggle to make those big saves that the Islanders desperately needed. The first loss came in the dying seconds of the third period on Jan. 26 against Washington, a goal that Varlamov wanted back off the stick of Justin Schultz. The next game, also against Washington, Varlamov allowed five goals during the second period, three being rather weak.
His last game against the Philadelphia Flyers ended in a 3-2 overtime loss on a goal that he wanted back despite its level of difficulty. But to Varlamov’s credit, he has been the only goalie to win a game for the Islanders this season. Out of all the starts this year, I believe his best start came against the Boston Bruins on Jan 18. In a game that mimicked a tough playoff battle, Varlamov denied all 27 shots he faced. But the reason this start stood out was that Varlamov made those big-time saves, particularly late to preserve the slim lead.
On the year, Varlamov owns a 2.00 goals-against average with a .924 save percentage. Still very strong numbers despite the recent struggles.
The Islanders need to see Varlamov get his confidence back and the only way that is going to happen is if the Islanders win a game.
KHL superstar Ilya Sorokin has held the backup role this season, while working on getting acclimated to the speed and skill of the NHL game.
For the young netminder, his season has gone the complete opposite of his counterpart. After having been thrown in the fire to start his NHL career due to a warmup injury to Varlamov back on Jan 16, Sorokin has improved exponentially over his last two starts. In his second start of the year against the New Jersey Devils in a 2-0 loss, he was not great but looked more comfortable than he did his first time around. He started to read the opposition a little better and made some well-positioned saves.
In his last start against the Flyers, an overtime loss, we finally saw glimpses of his elite skills. Despite having allowed four goals in the loss, Sorokin made some highlight-reel saves, which earned the team a point and gave the Islanders a considerable chance at snagging the other. Although he deserved his first NHL win based on his performance, the Islanders’ failed him as they took a costly penalty in overtime before Kevin Hayes netted the game-winner.
Sorokin owns a 0-2-1 record, with a 3.65 GAA and a .871 SV% on the year.
Again, wins are the most important thing at the NHL level, but the good news about Sorokin is that he has improved, drastically. Before the two games against the Buffalo Sabres were postponed due to COVID-19 protocols this week, I believed Sorokin had earned himself one of the starts.
With the Islanders currently riding a five-game skid, Trotz needs to put the goaltender in net that gives his team the best chance of winning. The reality is Semyon Varlamov is the goaltender to rely on, despite his latest performance. With Varlamov in net, the Islanders have scored just 2.33 goals per game, but have allowed only 2.00. With Sorokin in net, the team has allowed 3.67 goals per game and have scored a mere 1.00 goals. The Islanders have played better defense with the grizzled vet in goal, and if they are going to piece together a more consistent effort this year, it’s going to come from a strong defensive performance.