Semyon Varlamov waited at the end of the celebration line as, one-by-one, the Islanders congratulated rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin after the final buzzer.
Finally, it was Varlamov’s turn. He threw up his arms and the two Russians shared a lingering victory hug before joining their teammates at center ice to salute a giddy Nassau Coliseum sellout crowd of 6,800 that included Jets quarterback Zach Wilson and some of his new teammates as well as popular Islanders alumni Matt Moulson, Shawn Bates, Marty Reasoner and Long Island’s Richie Hansen.
The Islanders’ total team effort — a strong start, balanced scoring, structured defense and an edge in special teams — was the story in Saturday afternoon’s dominating 4-1 win over the Penguins in Game 4 of their first-round series.
But the Islanders would not have sent the series back to Pittsburgh for Monday night’s Game 5 tied at 2-2 — which guaranteed at least one more NHL playoff game at the Coliseum — without Sorokin’s 29-save effort.
"He’s been solid in there all year," said Jordan Eberle, one of four goal-scorers for the Islanders. "His quickness and laterally, side to side, some of the saves he makes are pretty amazing. It’s impressive to see him in his first playoff run. I know he’s been through it in Russia. To have his poise and his confidence back there and just his calmness. He makes big saves for us."
Sorokin came within 2:35 of his first NHL playoff shutout — he led CSKA Moscow to the KHL’s Gagarin Cup and was named the playoff MVP in 2019 — before Zach Aston-Reese capped the scoring with a shorthanded goal.
Coach Barry Trotz went back to Sorokin after Varlamov was in net for Games 2 and 3, giving up questionable early goals in each loss. Sorokin made 39 saves in the Islanders’ 4-3 win in Game 1 in Pittsburgh and likely will start Game 5 in what has become a best-of-three series.
"It’s a pretty veteran group over on the other side," said Mathew Barzal, who had two assists on the 2-for-5 power play. "So whatever we did tonight, they’ve probably already forgotten about it and they’re going to be fresh for Game 5. We’ve been in a few playoff series now the last few years, so we’ve kind of got a feel on where our heads need to be at and just where our focus is at.
"Once we leave the rink tonight, it’s a three-game series here."
The Islanders gave themselves a blueprint on how they can advance to the next round. They were hard on the puck and playing up ice from the opening faceoff, as compared to sluggish first periods in the first three games. The team that scored first has won all four games in this series.
"I thought we came out with a really good mindset," Trotz said. "We managed the puck really well. We got off to a better start. There wasn’t much room out there on both sides in that first period. In the second period, we started getting a little more traction and scored the first goal, which is key for us."
"We did a good job in all ends of the ice and in the neutral zone," said defenseman Ryan Pulock, whose shot from the left circle at 14:51 of the second period gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead. "We’ve got to make sure we get through the neutral zone and allow our forecheck to get in there and play with energy."
Brock Nelson’s forecheck set up Josh Bailey from the left circle to make it 1-0 at 8:07 of the second period. Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry (23 saves) complained that Anthony Beauvillier interfered with him, but Penguins defenseman Kris Letang pushed Beauvillier into his goalie, knocking Jarry back into his net.
The Islanders then took full control in the third period with the two power-play goals.
Oliver Wahlstrom was credited with a four-on-three goal at 6:04 that the Penguins’ Teddy Blueger knocked into his own net to make it 3-0. Eberle followed with a five-on-four power-play goal 24 seconds later.
Said Trotz, "It was more of an Islanders type of victory."