It has quickly become a tradition leading up to each of the New York Islanders’ postseason games that head coach Barry Trotz will be asked about who his team’s starting goaltender will be.
And each time he’s asked, he reveals that he’ll be going with a goaltender born in Russia — even going as far as divulging that he catches with his left hand.
The issue is that both of Trotz’s netminders — veteran Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin — were born in Russia and catch with their left hands. So the discovery of the Islanders’ starting goaltender isn’t made until one of them leads the team out on the ice for pre-game warmups roughly 30 minutes before puck drop.
Five games through the Islanders’ first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the mystery is subsiding. The 25-year-old Sorokin has emerged as the bonafide No. 1 option for Trotz, collecting all three wins in the series, including a superb 48-save performance in Game 5 on Monday night in Pittsburgh that set a franchise rookie record and lifted the Islanders to a 3-2 series lead.
One more win and they’re through to the Eastern Division final against the Boston Bruins with Game 6 coming on Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum.
Both losses came with Varlamov in net — the veteran forced to sit out Game 1 with an injury before a pair of soft goals spoiled a 43-save night for him in Game 2. In Game 3, ultimately a 5-4 loss, the writing was on the wall that 33-year-old, who was the team’s No. 1 netminder all season long — would take a backseat to Sorokin.
“I’ll have to look at it again. We’ll have to look at it,” Trotz said shortly after going to bat for the veteran who posted a franchise-record seven shutouts and a 212-minute shutout streak.
“Varlamov has been our number one goalie all year, he’s got seven shutouts,” he said. “And he’s fully healthy. We wouldn’t be maybe in the playoffs if it wasn’t for Varly.”
At this rate, the safe assumption heading into Game 6 on Wednesday is that Sorokin will once again be called upon to guard the crease, but Trotz will never tip his hand. That tune didn’t change when I asked him about his goaltending situation on Tuesday.
“We’re blessed to have two goalies we can go do night in and night out,” Trotz said. “It’s a good problem and I’d rather have that problem than have someone I don’t trust.”
Trust is undoubtedly important, but so are the numbers. Sorokin has stopped 116 of 122 shots faced this postseason, a .951 save percentage, with a 1.66 goals-against average. Varlamov’s save percentage is at a .903 with a .361 goals-against average.