In Game 7 down in Tampa this past Friday, the New York Islanders saw themselves down 1-0 as the clock continued to dwindle. The Islanders seemed to be a step behind the defending Stanley Cup Champions all game long, but it was the play of veteran goaltender Semyon Varlamov who stood tall to give his team a fighting chance. While the final score favored the Lightning by that count, that fighting chance is something that Varlamov gave his team all season long.
Varlamov stopped 30 of 31 shots in that decisive Game 7 and put together a valiant effort despite the result. A sequence of saves in the second period illustrated the kind of night Varlamov had.
Semyon Varlamov keeping the Islanders in this game pic.twitter.com/Ly6Z4qYv86
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) June 26, 2021
When anyone takes a look back at Varlamov’s performances during the regular season, the postseason, and in Game 7, it will be easy to see a mentality needed to have success in the NHL. That was noticeable right up until the final buzzer of the Islander season.
Through a shortened regular season that could only be classified as mediocre for the Islanders, Varlamov was anything but.
Semyon Varlamov ended the 56-game campaign sporting a 19-11-4 record with a 2.05 GAA and a .929 SV% (best in NHL), both career-bests through his 13 years in the NHL. He recorded seven shutouts (best in NHL), surpassing his career-high of five that he put up during the 2014-15 campaign. Four of those seven shutouts came against the cross-town rival New York Rangers.
It was a rather vast improvement if you look back to his first season with the Islanders (2.62 GAA, .914 SV%, 2 SO).
That improvement mattered this season more than ever, given the decrease in the Islanders offense once captain Anders Lee went down in the second week of March. The team in front of him struggled to muster chances, which meant that he had to do more to help the team collect wins.
His improvement in his Goals-Saved Above Average (GSAA) statistic showcased just how clutch Varlamov was this season.
Varlamov ended the regular season with a 22.0 GSAA, which ranked the highest in the NHL. That was a 17.6 point difference from his 2019-20 GSAA.
Out of all the goaltenders who played 1,800 or more minutes (30 starts), Varlamov ranked fourth with a high-danger SV% (HDSV%) of .847. His high-danger GSAA (HDGSAA) ranked second, at 1.02.
He came up big more often than not.
The Barry Trotz system in which the Islanders play has benefited netminders tremendously. Robin Lehner was able to turn his career around after a pit stop in New York (2018-2019), while Varlamov, over the last two seasons, did somewhat of the same after struggling towards the end of his time in Colorado.
That structure, while beneficial, should not take away from what Varlamov did this season.
“I thought I had a good year, same as the team,” Varlamov said during break-up day. “I always say when the team is playing well I play better. All in all we played great defensive hockey. For the goalie, it is always easier to play fo for the team when it’s really focusing on defense. Add seven shutouts this year, I feel like it could be more actually the way that we played. We were able to shut down teams a lot this year and then we would give up one goal at the end of the game.”
It should be mentioned that in the final season at Nassau Coliseum, Varlamov brought his game to another level. He posted a 12-3-3 record at home with a 1.87 GAA and a .937 SV%.
In Game 56 of the regular season, Varlamov was taken out after two periods of play following an injury to his knee. Ilya Sorokin would start the postseason for the Islanders and it was his play against the Pittsburgh Penguins that pushed the Islanders into the next round. Varlamov took back the crease midway through the Boston Bruins series and was integral in the Islanders making it to the conference finals yet again.
The positive news was that he felt good following his exit interview and didn’t expect it to impact any of his offseason training.
“Hands down, we have the best fans in the league. Our fans bring so much excitement during the game, it’s unbelievable.”
Varlamov ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/T0sSoPy9yl
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) June 27, 2021
In 14 postseason games, Semyon Varlamov owned a .922 SV% with a 2.56 GAA in 14 starts. While those numbers may not jump off the paper, the statistics only say so much. We saw the Islanders get dominated in games, but came away with victories thanks to timely stops. And even in games the Islanders lost, Varlamov had valiant efforts in keeping games close.
With the Islanders still easing in their goaltender of the future Ilya Sorokin, Varlamov’s play during the 2020-21 season was an encouraging sign for New York going forward. Varlamov’s improved numbers mean that the veteran goaltender can give the Islanders a majority of the starts next year still, while Sorokin continues to develop his game at the NHL level.
There will be no pressure to rush the 25-year-old Sorokin into a starter’s role because Varlamov, who is under contract for another two years, has proven he can still lead a team deep into the playoffs.
He was described by head coach Barry Trotz as the Islanders MVP, which was a title he rightfully earned. The Islanders will still need that effort next season when the pressure on them will be felt even more now that the team is moving beyond the underdog role.