Finding playing time for Ilya Sorokin was never an issue in his five KHL seasons as he was an All-Star in each one.
But the highly touted Russian prospect is just a 25-year-old NHL rookie with Semyon Varlamov clearly established as the Islanders’ No. 1 goalie. Plus, points are at even more of a premium in this shortened, 56-game season that started without any preseason games so coach Barry Trotz has little time to experiment with his lineup.
Sorokin got his fourth start on Tuesday night against the Sabres at KeyBank Center in the second game of a back-to-back series. The Islanders won, 3-1, on Monday night with Varlamov making 20 saves.
"I thought he had a pretty decent game last game," said Trotz of Sorokin’s 25-save performance in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Flyers on Jan. 31 that concluded an 0-3-2 road trip. That also came on the second day of back-to-back games against the same opponent.
Sorokin got no goal support in his first two starts. He lost, 5-0, to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 16 after Varlamov, the intended starter, was injured in warmups, and stopped 22 shots in a 2-0 loss to the Devils on Jan. 24 that started the winless road trip.
Sorokin, selected in the third round in 2014, finally joined the Islanders in the playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton last year, though he was ineligible to play in the postseason. He did get six weeks of practice time with Islanders director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco after simultaneously signing a one-year, $925,000 deal for last season to satisfy his entry-level contract and a one-year, $2 million deal for this season.
"Just growing confidence," Trotz said. "It’s been very difficult for Ilya to get any games. We were in a bubble last year. There’s no preseason games. He’s coming to a new environment in terms of style of play that’s the NHL versus the KHL. He’s had to do it the hard way. If he’s in, he’s got to have a real good performance."
In a normal, 82-game NHL season without COVID-19 restrictions, Sorokin may have spent time with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport to better acclimate to the North American game while Devils former No. 1 Cory Schneider backed up Varlamov. But the Sound Tigers are playing just a 24-game schedule between now and May 8, leaving little ice time in the AHL as well.
But that option has not been ruled out.
"We’re going to do whatever is right for him and the team," Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "But we feel he’s OK. Unfortunately, his first [initiation] in the NHL is certainly unfortunate circumstances. But he’s a very talented young man, a very committed young man, and he’s going to have tremendous success.
"If we think it’s right to get him to play a couple of games, we’ll do it in the minors. But, right now, we feel he’s capable of playing here. This is a unique year and there’s a lot of balancing decisions that you make. We’ll decide at a given time if we think it’s necessary to send him [down] to play a couple of games. But, at this point, we do not feel that."
If Varlamov (7-2-2, 1.89 goals-against average, .931 save percentage, three shutouts) continues his strong play, Sorokin’s next chance to play may be a back-to-back against the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum Feb. 27 and Feb. 28.
The Islanders conclude this four-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Saturday nights.
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