Semyon Varlamov played really, really well for the Islanders in Game 2 on Wednesday. But the way that one ended, it was clear that for the 32-year-old Russian, playing really, really well just wasn’t quite good enough.
So with the Islanders in desperate need of a win in Game 3 on Friday to claw their way back into their Eastern Conference final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they needed Varlamov to be better than he was Wednesday. They needed him to be great.
And he was.
Varlamov made 34 saves and outplayed last year's Vezina Trophy winner, Andrei Vasilevskiy, as the Islanders earned their first win of the series, beating the Lightning, 5-3, at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
Tampa Bay leads the best-of-seven series two games to one, but the Islanders have life now. Game 4 is Sunday at 3 p.m.
“He was really good,’’ Islanders coach Barry Trotz said of Varlamov, who earned his 10th win (10-5) of the postseason. “I thought [Tampa Bay] had a flurry early, where he had to make four or five, I thought, real tough saves. And I thought he made very timely, big saves for us. And that's all you need in the playoffs. And he did it tonight.’’
Varlamov made a half-dozen memorable saves, the biggest perhaps on a point-blank shot by Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli with 2:19 remaining to preserve what at the time was a 4-3 lead. The Islanders had led 3-1 after two periods, but a power-play goal early in the third by Ondrej Palat and a tip-in goal by Tyler Johnson at 12:04 of the third tied the score at 3-3.
Then Brock Nelson beat Vasilevskiy (31 saves) to put the Isles back in the lead at 16:35.
Varlamov made it stand up when he somehow robbed Cirelli, who, from the low slot, maybe eight feet away, one-timed a pass from behind the goal line that Varlamov smothered and held onto, stopping play.
It was a huge save from Varlamov, especially after the way Game 2 had ended Wednesday, with Nikita Kucherov scoring the winning goal with 8.8 seconds left in regulation.
“He's been there for us all along,’’ Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “Obviously, he came up huge for us a couple times. We broke down a couple times — that’s something we'll have to tighten up — but he was there when we needed him tonight.’’
The shot on goal by Cirelli was the last one by the Lightning in the game. Two attempts by Kevin Shattenkirk and two by Kucherov were blocked before Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored an empty-net goal to seal the victory for the Islanders.
And while Varlamov made all the saves he had to, the Islanders finally got to Vasilevskiy at the other end, proving to themselves that the Lightning netminder is not unbeatable.