Photo: Jim McIsaac/Newsday
When Islanders head coach Barry Trotz was asked who would be his starting goaltender in Game 2 of the East Division series, he coyly said it would be a Russian.
Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin are the Islanders Russian goaltending duo, so that did not give much insight other than him providing guffaws on his Zoom call with the media.
The goaltending question came after Sorokin gave up three unanswered goals in the third period of the Islanders’ 5-2 Game 1 loss to the Boston Bruins Saturday night at TD Garden.
Everyone had their answer in Game 2 when Varlamov started. The Islanders responded with a 4-3 overtime victory against the Bruins to even the series at 1 Tuesday night at TD Garden, even though the Islanders blew a 3-1 lead in the third period.
As much as the goaltending change had a positive effect so far in the playoffs, one has to wonder if this is good for the goaltenders and the team for the long haul of the playoffs. Far be it from me to criticize Trotz being that he is such a great tactician behind the bench, this is a reasonable question. Had the Islanders lost Game 2, Trotz would be second-guessed by the fans for the first time in his excellent coaching tenure on the Island. There’s no question he would be asked about it by the media, and it would not be a laughing matter for him anymore.
Trotz changing goaltenders could have Varlamov or Sorokin playing scared now. Both of them know they can be taken out or be benched if they make a mistake. Yes, they are professionals who need to be ready, but they are also only human beings who can be as fragile as Kyrie Irving.
I was surprised Trotz went with Varlamov for Game 2. I figured he would stick with Sorokin for one more game, especially when those three goals he gave up were not his fault. This was more of defensive breakdowns that caused Sorokin to struggle. He earned the right to get another start for providing a spark in the first round by winning four games against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Apparently, Trotz figured a goaltending change would provide another spark for this Islanders team. It worked in a sense Varlamov played well enough to give the Islanders a 3-1 lead. Of course, Tuesday night’s Islanders goaltender experienced the same problem as Saturday night’s Islanders goaltender had. The defense failed him as much as it failed Sorokin.
The Islanders defense has had some breakdowns in the playoffs so far. It’s been a problem more than the goaltending. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Bruins have not been afraid to shoot at the goaltenders at every opportunity.
To Varlamov’s credit, he managed to hold his composure by making several saves in the third period and denying Taylor Hall the game-winning goal in overtime. He could be that one guy who can handle the goaltending roulette better than Sorokin since he has been through this. For the 25-year-old Sorokin, it may not be easy to deal with, especially when Saturday night was not his fault.
It worked last year when Trotz shuffled Varlamov and Thomas Greiss in the playoffs. But he can’t keep going to this same well time after time. It can be too much for the goaltenders at the end where he could lose them.
This is something for him to think about. Doing it once or twice in a playoff series can be good, but if this is going to be what takes place a lot in the playoffs, it’s going to be counterproductive.
We all knew Varlamov would play at some point in the playoffs. He did well enough last season and this season to earn another chance. No one thought it would be this soon.
Trotz put unnecessary pressure on his goaltenders moving forward. Being a goaltender is tough enough as it is, especially in the playoffs. Now with an Islanders goaltender looking over his shoulder, it makes it much worse. There will be questions on who will be starting for every loss or every bad game. It’s not something players like to answer, especially the principals that are part of this shuffle.
Trotz can be funny and glib all he wants, but it won’t be a laughing matter if he loses his goaltenders when the Islanders start losing.