Barry Trotz knows selecting his starting goalie for Game 1 of the Islanders’ best-of-five qualifying series against the Panthers will be the toughest lineup decision he faces in Training Camp 2.0.
The coach is always quick to say he can’t make a wrong decision between Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss — “I think I can do that blindfolded, probably,” the coach said — but in a short series, one bad goalie performance could mean elimination.
“It might be the most difficult decision we have to make as an organization,” Trotz said.
The evaluation process will continue on Friday after the Islanders had their first off day since camp opened on Monday. Varlamov was on the winning side of a 2-0 intrasquad scrimmage on Wednesday at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow.
The Islanders open their qualifying series on Aug. 1 in Toronto and will have just one exhibition game beforehand, against the Rangers on July 29 in their hub city.
Trotz started the season alternating his goalies for the first 33 games, a franchise-record, but Varlamov was carrying more of the workload when the season was paused on March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Greiss went 16-9-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in 31 appearances while Varlamov was 19-14-6 with a 2.62 GAA and a .914 save percentage in 45 games.
Varlamov made 30 saves in the Islanders’ last game, a 5-4 shootout loss at Vancouver on March 10 and that marked his 12th appearance in 14 games.
“I don’t know if there’s any [position group] that’s ahead of the other but the one that can make the biggest difference is goaltending,” Trotz said. “Going into this tournament, I think it’s going to be a mindset, it’s going to be team play and it’s going to be special teams and your goaltending. Those four elements are going to be key.”
Greiss started two of the three regular-season games against the Panthers as the Islanders swept the season series. Varlamov made 35 saves in a 3-2 overtime win on Oct. 12 at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. Greiss stopped 37 shots in a 2-1 win at Barclays Center on Nov. 9 and had 32 saves in a 3-1 win at Florida on Dec. 12.
But the nearly eight months between games for the Islanders and Panthers renders the regular season results as insignificant ancient history. Rather, Trotz, director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco must determine through training camp practices, scrimmages and one exhibition game whether Varlamov or Greiss is sharper after such a long and unexpected layoff when ice time was scarce.
Greiss remained on Long Island during the pause while Varlamov spent the bulk of the time in Texas and then trained in Colorado before returning to New York.
“We all went through a difficult time,” Varlamov said. “After we played the last game and we flew back home, in the next two days I was already driving to Texas, trying to escape from New York. The situation in New York was pretty bad.”
Varlamov said he trained in his garage while working with his trainer via FaceTime. Finally, Varlamov was able to find ice time at a rink about two hours outside of Lubbock, Texas. But the goalie was not facing shots as he worked on his own.
“I came to New York and when I started to see shots, I felt rusty,” Varlamov said. “Right now, we’ve been skating together for three weeks. I feel better. My puck control is getting better. By the time playoffs start, I’ll be 100 percent.”
Meaning, both Varlamov and Greiss are hoping to make Trotz’s difficult decision as tough as possible.