Semyon Varlamov has a decent resume of postseason games in his 11 NHL seasons. Just nothing recently.
So, now that he’s beaten out Thomas Greiss as the Islanders’ No. 1 netminder at the start of the best-of-five qualifying series against the Panthers, he’s just enjoying the experience.
Varlamov, in the first season of a four-year, $20 million deal, made 27 saves in Saturday’s 2-1 win in Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, his first postseason action since 2014 with the Avalanche. Game 2 is Tuesday at noon.
“The first game you play, you always feel more nervous,” Varlamov said on Sunday as the Islanders did not practice.
“Two years ago, I was injured. Last year, I was the backup. Finally, I have the opportunity to play. I’m very excited about it. Playoff time is the best time for hockey players.”
Going with Varlamov over Greiss was just one of coach Barry Trotz’s key lineup decisions for Game 1 that went well.
He also opted to use Tom Kuhnhackl on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s third line with Derick Brassard and Kuhnhackl’s effective forechecking led to Pageau’s first-period goal.
Trotz had used burly Ross Johnston in that spot in Wednesday night’s 2-1 exhibition game win over the Rangers and Andrew Ladd and Michael Dal Colle had also gotten looks as the 12th forward during Training Camp 2.0.
“When I didn’t get to play that exhibition game, you’ve just got to make sure you stay ready,” said Kuhnhackl, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 2016-17. “Throughout training camp, everyone competed hard and battled for a spot. At the end of the day, I don’t think it matters who was in the lineup. Everyone is capable of stepping in and doing the job.”
Trotz said he knew Kuhnhackl “was probably going to be the guy,” during training camp.
Likewise, he was leaning toward Varlamov as his Game 1 starter as training camp progressed, though the goalie didn’t have the recent playoff pedigree. Varlamov entered Game 1 with a 13-13-0 record, a 2.57 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 26 career playoff appearances for the Capitals and Avalanche.
He started all seven games of the Avalanche’s first-round loss in 2014. He also appeared in all 13 games for the Capitals in 2008 and in six of seven games for them the next season. Varlamov’s 19 saves over two shutout periods against the Rangers made up Trotz’s mind.
“They were pretty close,” Trotz said of Varlamov and Greiss. “Varly had one or two scrimmages where he had to be outstanding. His team ended up giving up a few more chances. That probably pushed it over. He was probably leading by a nose. There was nothing after the Rangers’ game to say he didn’t win by a nose.”
But even with Varlamov having grabbed the starter’s role, he’s not a lock to remain in net with another solid performance in Game 2. Game 3 is Wednesday at noon and Trotz wouldn’t rule out using both goalies in the back-to-back situation.
“We’ve had discussions about that, but I think we’ve just got to let it play out,” Trotz said. “It’s in their minds that might happen. I expect both of them to see playoff action.”
Varlamov said he’s fine with whatever the coaching staff decides.
He has the same easygoing attitude toward playing games in the hub city without fans in the arena.
“It was pretty easy to adapt to playing with no fans,” Varlamov said. “There’s no extra pressure coming from the fans. Right now, we’re in a different situation. It is what it is. It will be so much nicer to play with fans. But you get used to it.”