New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz has a doozy of a decision to make when it comes to who is minding the net for Game 5 of the Eastern Division first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and beyond.
Veteran Semyon Varlamov — in the second season of a four-year deal — has been labeled by Trotz himself as the team’s No. 1 goaltender without debate.
The problem is that he lost Games 2 and 3 after sitting out Game 1 with an injury. He allowed a pair of soft goals in Game 2 before stabilizing, but Game 3 saw him popped for five goals — an inability to make the big save sabotaging an Islanders frantic third-period comeback.
“Varlamov has been our number one goalie for all year,” Trotz said after Game 2. “He’s got seven shutouts. He was outstanding. He set team records (those seven shutouts) and he’s fully healthy. We maybe wouldn’t be in the playoffs if it wasn’t for Varly’s performance this year. That, to me, is very simple.”
Yet, rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin dazzled in an overtime Game 1 victory with 39 saves when Varlamov was deemed unfit and followed it up with an even better performance on Saturday afternoon, stopping 29 of 30 shots in a 4-1 victory in Game 4 to even the first-round series at two games apiece.
The 25-year-old continues to live up to the lofty expectations that were placed upon his shoulders — and only grew in the build-up to his long-awaited rival.
Sorokin was drafted by the Islanders in 2014 but opted to stay in his native Russia to play with CSKA Moscow of the KHL where he developed into one of the top international goalie prospects on the planet while winning the Gagarin Cup (the KHL’s Stanley Cup) and KHL Playoff MVP honors in 2019.
So it’s not like this is a rookie that hasn’t performed on a big stage or two.
“Ilya’s been through a lot of stuff. Everything from a league championship in a very good league, he’s won, he’s been MVP, he’s been under the spotlight,” Trotz said. “It’s his demeanor. He enjoys those moments just like [Varlamov] does. So he’s not a guy who is a pure rookie coming into the NHL or these high-pressure situations, just in different leagues. As we brought him along, I think he just feels very comfortable.”
That comfort level and what has constantly been described as a calm demeanor is the foundation of Sorokin’s resolute play in the crease — one that he’s shown flashes of while speaking with the media.
“Every playoff game, you have a high level of concentration and focus and you have to be ready 100%,” Sorokin said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in juniors, the KHL, or the NHL.”
But the Islanders have often taken things slowly with a majority of their younger players or prospects except for Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom, and Sorokin has been no exception. He joined the team in the postseason bubble once his contract with CSKA expired last season to begin acclimating to life in North America. While he was expected to hit the ground running, which he did, he appeared in just nine games over the first two months of the season before his play forced Trotz to give him a larger workload.
Giving Sorokin the Game 4 start suggested that Trotz is letting current form dictate things more than traditional roles, which suggests that Sorokin will get the start in Game 5 on Monday in Pittsburgh. You won’t see Trotz tip his hand, though.