Photo: Chris O’Meara/AP
The Tampa Bay media awarded Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov as the second star of the game. Hard to quibble about Mat Barzal being the No. 1 star of the game after scoring the first goal of the game in the second period that would give the Islanders a 2-1 Game 1 victory over the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
But one can make a case that Varlamov deserved the No. 1 star of the game. He faced 31 shots, and he made 30 saves. With that Lightning offense, he earned all those 30 saves.
Make no mistake. He was tested from start to finish by a loaded, offensive team. If he does not make those first-period saves, this game may have had a different outcome.
The key for the Islanders to win this Stanley Cup semifinals series is to play from ahead rather than behind in each game. They accomplished that objective on Sunday because of Varlamov. His play kept the team in the game until Barzal scored a five-hole goal in the second period to give the Islanders a lead. Ryan Pulock made it a 2-0 game at 5:36 of the third period.
Varlamov started his day by denying Ryan McDonagh’s shot minutes into the game. Then on an Islanders power-play, he stopped Jon Rutta cold and denied Alex Klllorn after a rebound as the Lightning attempted a short-handed goal. He followed that up by stopping Blake Coleman from a goal during the Islanders power-play. When the Lightning killed off the Islanders power-play, it was Varlamov who had to answer again when Anthony Cirelli fired a shot. The Islanders goaltender also stopped Point on a breakaway shot and Nikita Kucherov on a follow-up. He finished the first period by making a stick save of Killorn’s shot.
There was no question he served more of a driver than a passenger in that period. He carried the Islanders defense more than the other way around.
Varlamov stopped David Savard twice to start the second period. Savard tried again a couple of times with nothing to show for it as a result of the Islanders goaltender.
The beauty of this Lightning team is they can shoot from all angles and score. They don’t have to create second chances the way the Islanders have to do to score. This makes Varlamov so important in this series. He has to be on alert whenever the Lightning player has the puck. In this game, he couldn’t relax or be complacent. This should be a good thing. A goaltender can be complacent at times with the defense shouldering the load.
Varlamov’s biggest save of the game came with 1:35 of the second period. In an attempt to score a shorthanded, game-tying goal on the Islanders power-play, Killorn tried to score on a breakaway just to be stopped.
From there, you got the feeling he would not be denied in this game with the way he was going.
It appeared the Islanders took the will of the Lightning in the third period when Pulock scored, But then the Lightning made it a game late when they used the extra-attacker on their power-play, and it paid off when Point put it in after the Lightning surrounded Varlamov.
It was game on alright. Even with 53 seconds to go, the Lightning offense can tie it this quickly with so many array of shooters they boast. The Amalie Arena audience knew it, too, and they did all they could to rattle the Islanders goaltender.
We all know Varlamov can implode after he gives up a goal. Lightning coach Jon Cooper called a timeout to make the Islanders goaltender think about that goal.
Fortunately for him, the Lightning misfired. They hit it to the goalpost, and they were not even close to getting through him several times.
Varlamov may have gotten lucky in the end, but it does not diminish the game he had overall.
The Islanders needed him to come up big against a team that could repeat as the Stanley Cup champions. They needed him to set the tone in the first game. He did his job.
His Game 1 performance reinforced Barry Trotz’s faith in him against the Lightning.
On this day, he played like the first star of the game.