WASHINGTON — Confidence can fuel a team but it can also be fleeting, and the Islanders know they can’t afford to lose any they’ve built.
Re-entering the playoff race will be a longshot, making it much more likely president and general manager Lou Lamoriello opts to be a seller in advance of Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Which means Semyon Varlamov could soon be tending another team’s net with several playoff contenders needing goaltending help. So Tuesday night’s game against the Capitals at Capital One Arena may serve as both a showcase for the goalie and one of the Islanders’ last chances to make a run for the playoffs.
The Islanders entered the contest having won three straight games in regulation for the first time this season but still 18 points behind the Capitals for the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot, albeit with four games in hand. The teams also play a home-and-home series in the season’s final week.
"We know exactly where we’re at in the standings," Mathew Barzal said before the game. "It’s nice that we’re starting to play well and it feels like we got our groove back a bit and it feels like shades of last year and the year before, just having the lead and being able to close games out. Washington is a team, if we were going to make the playoffs, they’re a team that we have to try and catch."
Varlamov starts Tuesday’s game coming off two of his stronger efforts of his season as he missed training camp with an injury, was sidelined because of COVID-19 and has seen Ilya Sorokin take over as the No. 1 goalie. Varlamov, whose four-year, $20 million contract runs through next season, stopped 27 shots in Friday’s 5-2 win over the Jets at UBS Arena and was the game’s best player with a season-high 44 saves in a 5-4 home loss to the NHL-best Avalanche on March 7.
Tuesday marked the eighth straight game coach Barry Trotz has alternated his starting goalie after Sorokin played in 11 of 13.
"I believe in both the goalies," Trotz said. "Both goalies have played outstanding and made timely saves. I think with Varly, all year he’s been chasing it a little bit just because of the shutdowns. So both of them are quality goalies and with the number of games we’ve got, out biggest advantage is we’ve got two goaltenders that are capable of winning games or stealing games for us."
But Lamoriello could determine that Varlamov’s trade value is higher now, with some contenders unsettled in net, than it will be in the offseason.
Sorokin, seven years younger than his fellow Russian, is in the first season of a three-year, $12 million deal. Varlamov’s $5 million salary-cap charge may simply be too pricey if Sorokin is going to play the bulk of the games.
On the other hand, the Islanders’ confidence in their two goalies has been expanded into more confidence in their play overall.
"Confidence is everything," Trotz said. "It’s something that’s earned. It’s all about confidence and playing the right way. If the attitude and confidence is there, then you’re probably going to have pretty good success. We got into a little bit of a rhythm and we’re starting to win some games.
"But it’s fleeting, too."
Trotz cited the third period of a 5-2 loss in Minnesota on Nov. 7. The Islanders entered the period leading 2-1 with a chance to win their third straight and improve to 6-2-2. Instead, it was the start of a season-turning, 0-8-3 skid.