This time, there was no headfirst slide celebration for Semyon Varlamov.
Instead, the Islanders goaltendee had to settle for handshakes and a hug from the opposing goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, after the Isles’ season ended with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Lightning in Game 6 of Eastern Conference finals at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
Tampa Bay advanced to the Stanley Cup Final when Anthony Cirelli’s shot, at 13:18 of the extra period, hit the far post, ricocheted off Varlamov’s skate and crossed the goal line.
The ending, though, couldn’t dampen the fact that as the Islanders fought to stay alive in Game 6, no one fought harder than Varlamov, who made 46 saves. Barry Trotz called Varlamov the Islanders’ best player in the game, especially in the first 30 minutes, when they were being dominated and badly outshot by the Lightning.
"He’s a stud,’’ defenseman Devon Toews said. "The saves he’s making in big moments is just huge. And it just keeps us going. It re-energizes us and we can see that he’s battling there for us.’’
Tampa Bay outshot the Islanders 17-6 in the first period and yet the score was tied at 1. The shot advantage grew to 24-6 midway through the second period and the shots were 42-21, Tampa, at the end of regulation. Only Victor Hedman (nine goals in the playoffs) had beaten Varlamov, on a rebound at 6:28 of the first period.
"He gave us a chance to win tonight,’’ Trotz said of Varlamov. "Without him in the first 30 minutes, I think that there would have been some separation between the two clubs. But he allowed us to hang in there.’’
Varlamov, whom the Islanders signed to a four-year, $20 million contract last summer after they let Robin Lehner leave as a free agent, had come to the Islanders with a 213-169-50 career record over 11 seasons with Washington and Colorado. He had a 13-13 record in the playoffs, his last appearance in 2014.
But Trotz chose him as his No. 1 goalie for the playoffs, and though Thomas Greiss did spell him for a few games, Varlamov (11-7 in the postseason, with a 2.14 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, and two shutouts) lived up to the assignment. His shutouts, which came back-to-back in Game 5 of the first-round series against Washington and Game 1 of the second-round series against Philadelphia, set a franchise record for shutout streak, at 138:17.
Trotz credited director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco for working with Varlamov to tweak some things after he joined the team, and he credited Greiss for pushing Varlamov to be better.
Varlamov and the penalty-killing unit survived a four-minute high sticking penalty to Andy Greene at the end of regulation and into overtime, and on it, Brock Nelson nearly gave Varlamov a chance to recreate his headfirst slide celebration from Game 5. But Vasilevskiy stopped Nelson’s shorthanded breakaway shot.
"Of course I was hoping he was going to score on that breakaway,’’ Varlamov said. "We had a chance to win tonight, that was a great chance for us. He didn’t score. What are you going to do?’’