Maybe Ilya Sorokin knew days before his first-ever NHL playoff game on Sunday. Maybe he found out hours before the game. We will never know.
One thing for sure. Nothing could have prepared this rookie Islanders goaltender for his first playoff ever start. Even if he knew ahead of time, he wouldn’t have been ready for a game like this. Sure he played in the KHL playoffs and he shined there, but the NHL is a different level. It’s the best of the best.
Sorokin received the nod to start Game 1 of the Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins series. He got the start because Semyon Varlamov apparently is hurting after he sustained a lower-body injury in the Islanders’ regular-season finale against the Boston Bruins on Monday night. Cory Schneider served as Sorokin’s backup for this game.
The kid wasn’t great, but no matter. He showed mettle in overtime and at times during the game in the Islanders’ 4-3 overtime victory over the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.
You can make a case for guys like Kyle Palmieri (two goals, including a game-winner in OT), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (tied the game at 2 in the third period, two assists, five shots and five hits) and Brock Nelson (17th career playoff goal that gave the Islanders a go-ahead goal in the third period) as the player of the game. That’s the beauty of a championship-contending team when everyone can make a case by contributing to the win.
I am going with Sorokin as the player of the game. Here’s why: If he couldn’t shake off a game-tying goal on a Kasperi Kapanen’s wrist shot with 3:39 remaining in the third period after the Islanders led 3-2, the Islanders would have lost in overtime. They needed him to play like the star he was touted in Russia. They needed him to show why the Islanders put their faith in him as the goalie of the future. He had to come through for them, and he did.
He was smooth in overtime. The Penguins generated many scoring chances and put pressure on him. They were in the Islanders zone. They had chances, and he denied them. He showed toughness right there. Just ask playoff star Jeff Carter, who got denied by him. Even Sidney Crosby had to admire his guile by stopping some of his shots despite scoring a goal in the second period, giving the Penguins a 2-1 lead.
Sorokin finished with 39 saves as the second Islanders rookie goaltender in Islanders history to start his first game of the postseason. He kept the Islanders in the game for the first and second periods before the team figured out how to get into the Penguins zone and generate offense towards Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry.
He earned another start in Game 2 on Tuesday night. He also gives the Islanders luxury to rest Varlamov as much as he can.
Whether the Islanders want to admit it or not, they had to be happy Sorokin got his first playoff game out of the way now rather than play in the middle of this series or in the next round. The sooner he started his first game, the better off he and the Islanders were.
The Islanders hoped Sorokin would get some playoff starts and maximize it with some good performances and some wins. They don’t expect much out of him. After all, he is a rookie. He needs to have the experience to grow before he can be a playoff star. This means he is going to have to fail before he can achieve success.
For one game, Sorokin had the best of both worlds. He dealt with failure, and he dealt with success. He showed what he can do in adversity. This is an encouraging development moving forward to this series and beyond.
This had to be more of a relief than a celebration for Sorokin. He knows every playoff game has its own story. He can do even better than he did in Game 1. For him to do good enough to give the Islanders a chance to win, he and the Islanders can feel good about it.
As great as his 134-64-22 record, .930 save percentage and a 1.70 goals-against-average in 244 regular-season games were in the KHL that had the Islanders invest in him as the guy who can win the Stanley Cup for them one day and as good as he was in his rookie season, he gets judged for what he does right now.
The returns turned out to be encouraging for this playoff game.
This should be the Game 1 takeaway.