A dependable platoon of two goaltenders has become just as much of a trademark for the New York Islanders as their defensive, grind-it-out style of play.
Whether it was Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, and now Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin — two high-end netminders ensured that the Islanders’ opposition was still playing a formidable stalwart between the pipes.
But the start of the 2021-22 season — like almost everything else for the Islanders — hasn’t provided that same level of comfort.
Semyon Varlamov missed all of training camp and almost the entire first month of the year after a lingering lower-body injury hampered his offseason.
He was welcomed back to a team in disarray in the midst of an 11-game losing streak while on the back-end of a 13-game road trip that coincided with a COVID outbreak and more than half of their skaters being put on the shelf because of either the virus or injury.
Varlamov has struggled since then, putting up numbers that would be by far the worst in his career should this sort of play continue. He’s 0-5-1 in seven starts with a .884 save percentage and a 3.29 goals-against average.
Meanwhile, Sorokin has been playing at the All-Star caliber that most expected him to hit when he came over from Russia two seasons ago — making the idea of a steady rotation all the more difficult for head coach Barry Trotz as he tries to make up ground in the standings
“That’s the balance. We’re not in a position to do anybody any favors right now,” Trotz said. “It’s a balance of trying to get Varly to catch up. He missed training camp. You’ve seen it not only in goaltending but almost every position — when people miss training camp, it is hard to catch up as the season goes along. But they do.”
If the Islanders’ record was anything better than their disappointing 7-11-5 entering Tuesday night’s tilt with the Detroit Red Wings, Trotz likely would have been making more of an effort to give Varlamov some consistent playing time.
“When we’re not going good, it’s even harder to catch up,” Trotz admitted. “To me, it’s really important. Varly is a big part of us and a big part of our success. We have to surround him. I have to give him enough games to get him in a rotation so that he’s feeling good about his game and we can get wins from him.”
But he’s only started two of the last seven games as the No. 1 goalie job certainly appears to be Sorokin’s to lose right now. Even Trotz himself admitted that with Sorokin being the “hotter” goaltender, he’ll be playing three games in a four-game stretch compared to his usual formula of an even split between the goalies.
That won’t be the plan for the rest of the season, though.
“There’s lots of games left,” Trotz said. “So we’ve got to get both of our goalies nice and hot, playing well right in front of them, and hopefully make some moves in the standings.”