There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed right to question whether Semyon Varlamov should be the guy in goal for the Islanders in the playoffs.
Barry Trotz, the head coach, made the decision that with Varlamov still getting over a little bit of a groin strain, it made sense to start rookie Ilya Sorokin in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And Sorokin played well, and the Islanders won. So it seemed reasonable to keep going with Sorokin, at least until he lost a game.
But Trotz started Varlamov in Game 2 of that series, and Game 3. And when the Islanders lost both games, and Varlamov gave up one or two questionable goals along the way, Trotz came back with Sorokin, and the Isles won the next three in a row to finish off the Penguins and advance to the second round against the Boston Bruins.
Sorokin started Game 1 of the series, which the Islanders lost, and Trotz immediately turned to Varlamov and hasn’t looked back.
"He's been one of those guys that has a bad game, you want to throw him [back] in there right away, because you know he's gonna come back with a really good game,’’ Trotz said.
Things seem to have stabilized with Varlamov, whose goals-against average has been dropping while his save percentage rises. And the Isles have won two in a row, to take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven series against Boston.
They would not have won the pivotal Game 5 on Monday without a massive performance from Varlamov, who stopped 40 shots as the Islanders were outshot, 44-19, in what turned out to be a 5-4 victory.
"Varly made some huge saves,’’ Islanders forward Jordan Eberle said. "You’ve got to be ready to go at the start, and especially in Boston, you know that they were going to come, and they took us by storm there. I thought we leveled off pretty good and obviously [Mathew Barzal’s] goal . . . brings us back.’’
The Islanders fell behind almost immediately on David Pastrnak’s first goal of the game, at 1:25. It wasn’t a shot Varlamov rightly could have been expected to stop, but it did mark the fifth time in his six postseason starts that Varlamov had allowed a goal on one of the first three shots he faced in the game. And the Islanders have fallen behind in all six games.
But Varlamov was unshaken. The Bruins kept pressuring and the 33-year-old Russian just kept making saves, to keep his team in it until Barzal’s power-play goal tied it, 1-1, late in the period and the Isles ended up building a 5-2 lead before holding on for the win.
"If you know anything about Varly, there's not a guy that cares more, there's probably not a guy that's more low maintenance, there's probably not a guy that understands himself, and the game, the process of being a goalie in the NHL [better],’’ Trotz said before the game. "And his demeanor gives you that confidence that he gets that.
"Goaltending's one of the those positions where, if you don't have that trigger where you can just sort of understand it, why, maybe . . . a goal goes in that you don't expect, how to shake those off, then you find goaltenders really go into those long slumps — or never even get a career going — because they can't let it go.’’
Varlamov has mastered the art of letting it go. In Game 2 against Pittsburgh, he gave up an inexplicably bad goal to Bryan Rust, on the third shot he saw, 3:22 into the first period. He went on to play an outstanding game, making 43 saves, but the Islanders lost, 2-1. In Game 3 against the Bruins, Varlamov stopped 39 of the first 40 shots he faced, but gave up a bad-angle goal to Brad Marchand in overtime as the Isles lost, 2-1. But he shook it off and has stopped 68 of the next 73 shots (.931 save percentage) as the Isles won the next two games.
Sorokin still has better numbers than Varlamov does this postseason — he is 4-1, with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage — but Varlamov (3-3, 2.72, .925) is rolling now. There’s no question anymore who should start the next game for the Islanders.