Before a question could even be asked of him, New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz began raving about his rookie goaltender, Ilya Sorokin.
“He was outstanding… Unbelievable,” Trotz said without even saying his name. “You saw the athleticism and he made some huge saves.”
This was just moments after the 25-year-old — who played five years professionally in Russia while becoming one of the top international goalie prospects on the planet — won his first career NHL game in dazzling fashion; stopping all 20 Buffalo Sabres shots in a 3-0 shutout triumph.
It was Sorokin’s fourth game of the season, having fallen victim to a hasty debut after starter Semyon Varlamov took a puck to the jaw in just the second game of the season against the New York Rangers before shoddy defensive efforts and little offensive support left him on the wrong side of meetings against the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers.
But it all came together on Tuesday night as the Islanders defense limited the Sabres to just 20 shots — including just three in the second period — while Sorokin made a bevy of show-stopping, acrobatic saves to bail out the defense when it did break down.
More importantly, the Islanders gave Sorokin a lead to play with for the first time in his NHL career, popping in two goals from Anders Lee and JG Pageau in the first period before Lee added an empty-netter at the buzzer in the third.
“We’re always trailing I think. I felt the guys were really committed to getting off to a good start,” Trotz said. “They were committed to blocking shots and they really did a good job in front of him. As the game went on, [the Sabres] were starting to get their legs and they were coming. And he responded by bailing everybody else out. It was a nice complement for the guys. They did it at the start and he did it at the end.”
“It’s better when you start 2-0 instead of 0-2,” Sorokin added. “It’s better for your confidence.”
The win also is expected to take some pressure off his shoulders, at least according to Trotz.
“Like every player in this game — if you’re a forward you want your first goal, if you’re a defenseman, you want your first point — as a goaltender, you want your first win,” Trotz said. “When you get it with a shutout, it’s huge.”
That word ‘pressure,’ however, doesn’t exist in the mind of Sorokin.
“I don’t think about pressure,” he said. “I just think about my game — what I can do and what I can control. It’s all about what I think beforehand and during the game.”
His starring performance provides the first concrete evidence that Trotz will now have to begin putting a plan in place to split time between Varlamov — who has been one of the hottest goalies in the NHL this season — and Sorokin.
It’s a familiar philosophy used by the Islanders head coach, as he’s fortified two-straight playoff teams with platoons of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss before Varlamov and Greiss helped backstop the Islanders to the Eastern Conference Final last season.
“I think that’s one of the things we’ve had the luxury of the last couple of years and we’d like to get back to it,” Trotz said. “It’s important. I think our schedule will dictate a lot of that. The back-to-backs, they’re going to split them anyway. We’re going to monitor it. We’re going to monitor Varly and Ilya.”
The Islanders are off to Pittsburgh for a two-game set against the Penguins on Thursday and Saturday, opening up an opportunity for another look at the expected platoon.