Barry Trotz has said the beauty of having two good goaltenders is that he cannot make a bad decision regarding which one to start.
Usually true. Not now.
There is only one good decision for Saturday’s Game 4 of a first-round series against the Penguins, and it is to go back to rookie Ilya Sorokin, who won Game 1 before Semyon Varlamov presided over losses in Games 2 and 3.
This is no knock on Varlamov and his resume. He arguably was the team’s MVP this season, including seven shutouts and a 2.04 goals-against average. And he has vastly more NHL experience than does Sorokin.
But come the playoffs, especially when you are down 2-1 in a seven-game series, the past is irrelevant – recent, distant or in between.
Nothing matters but the present, and at present something does not seem quite right about Varlamov.
After returning from a lower-body injury for Game 2, he allowed an awful early goal before settling down in a 2-1 loss. In Game 3, he at times did not get much help from his defense but also came up short himself in a 5-4 loss.
When it was over, the coach offered this damagingly fuzzy assessment:
"I’ll have to look at it again. Sometimes, your first reaction might not be favorable. We’ll look at all the chances and the goals and see what we could have done."
In another less-than-encouraging sign for Varlamov, Trotz said, "We scored four goals. We’ve got to come up with a win. That should be a lock for us."
Things did not get much better for Varlamov on Trotz’s post-practice Zoom on Friday. He said that upon further review, it was not as bad as he first thought in the emotion of the moment. But he still said he wished Varlamov would have managed another save or two.
"It just wasn’t his night," Trotz said.
Then this: Asked how much of Varlamov’s Game 3 performance will go into the decision on the Game 4 starter, Trotz said, "Oh, a big portion, for sure."
Thursday was the first time in 28 years the Islanders scored four goals in a playoff game and lost in regulation, according to the NYISkinny blog.
If Sorokin happened to watch video of Trotz’s two most recent Zooms, he probably wrote "starting" on his day planner for Saturday. Or however you say "starting" in Russian.
Anyway, that is what should happen. Things have been off-kilter, mojo-wise, for the Islanders since Anders Lee suffered a torn ACL in March, and now in the playoffs they are hurting themselves with slow starts and soft goals.
Something needs to change for Game 4, and the most obvious something is a switch to Sorokin.
Remember, even though he is an NHL rookie, he hardly is a kid. He turns 26 this summer and only two years ago he was playoff MVP on CSKA Moscow’s Gagarin Cup-winning team in the second-best league in the world.
He gave up four goals in a four-game sweep of Avangard Omsk and had five shutouts in 20 KHL playoff games overall in 2019.
OK, fine, Avangard Omsk is not quite the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins. Still, this moment will not scare Sorokin.
In an unscientific Twitter poll featuring the two Russian goalies that I posted early Friday, about 86% of voters chose Sorokin over Varlamov, more of the vote than Vladimir Putin has received in any of his races for president.
What do the goalies themselves think about all this? We don’t know. Neither has appeared on a Zoom session with reporters during the series.
But most of the rest of us know, or think we do. We’ll see what Trotz thinks soon enough.