LAS VEGAS, Nev. — No matter the system changes, no matter who comes in and out of the lineup, and maybe even no matter the potential alterations general manager Lou Lamoriello makes to the roster over the next few weeks, it seems evident that the Islanders are only going to go as far as their goaltending takes them.
That’s not necessarily a tragedy. When Ilya Sorokin is on his game he’s one of the best goalies in the league. He’s backed up by a veteran who has played 15 seasons at a pretty consistent level in Semyon Varlamov, who could be a No. 1 on at least a handful of other teams. They can both steal games, and they both have at times this season.
The flip side to that, of course, is when the goaltending is porous, the Islanders have little chance to be competitive. They just don’t have enough talent or depth at the other positions to make up for it, like, say, last season’s Colorado Avalanche, who got average-to-suspect goaltending for much of their 2022 playoff run.
Sorokin’s sudden shakiness was the biggest reason that the Islanders entered Saturday’s game in Vegas — a 5-2 win — with just a 2-5-1 mark in their previous eight games. After a stupendous start to the season in which he was at one point the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, the 27-year-old Russian has struggled. More specifically, he stopped making the 10-bell saves he routinely made over the first six weeks.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Sorokin’s high danger save percentage of .870 through Nov. 28 was fifth out of the 24 goalies that had played at least 600 minutes. But since then, in his last five starts — all regulation losses — that number has dipped to .710. Among the 31 goalies with at least 200 minutes headed into Saturday night, Sorokin was 30th over that span (only Colorado’s Alexander Georgiev was worse).
Enter Varlamov, who has been better than his counterpart lately. And his play in net was the primary reason the Islanders left T-Mobile Arena victorious — he stopped 35 of 37 shots.
But Varlamov couldn’t finish the game. He left with 6:22 to go in the third period with the Islanders ahead 3-2 at the time, apparently getting injured. Coach Lane Lambert didn’t provide much detail after the game, saying he didn’t know why Varlamov came off the ice, and that the team will “evaluate him in the next couple days and see where he’s at.”
Varlamov is now 4-0-1 in his last five starts, and if the injury isn’t anything overly serious, he is making a case to get more playing time than he’s getting already. His numbers are now just as good as Sorokin’s for the season, too. While Sorokin has a .921 save percentage and 2.49 goals-against average in 22 games, Varlamov has a .919 save percentage and 2.65 goals-against average in 12 games. Sorokin had to make just one save late on Saturday after entering the game, while the Islanders preserved the win with a pair of empty net goals.
It was Varlamov’s play that was the difference, and he was locked in early. He denied Nicolas Roy midway through the first when the Golden Knights forward was left alone in front of the net, allowing Anders Lee to stake the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 18:58.
He made another key stop in the second period with the Islanders holding onto a slim 2-1 lead and on their heels in the defensive zone, getting his pad on Ben Hutton’s shot from the slot. That allowed Simon Holmstrom to increase the lead to 3-1 with his first career NHL goal at 17:36.
In the third period, Varlamov couldn’t stop Reilly Smith’s wrist shot on the power play on what was the forward’s second goal of the night. But after that, he shrugged off a shot by Chandler Stephenson with 12:12 to go, covered up a one-timer by Jake Leschyshyn with 8:45 remaining, and kicked away a Mark Stone attempt about 20 seconds later.
“Varly (Varlamov) had a really strong game,” Lee said. “When they did get their opportunities, he was able to deny them.”
The Islanders, though, still spent more time in their defensive zone than they would have liked, getting out-shot 38-26 for the game, and out-attempted 63-44 at five-on-five.
That said, they felt they were cleaner in the defensive zone against the Golden Knights after the utter debacle of losing in Arizona on Friday, blowing a 2-0 lead to the miserable Coyotes, and getting dominated for long stretches. After that game, Lambert labeled their inability to clear pucks and get defensive zone stops as the biggest issue. They could still use some improvement and were better against the Golden Knights, a more talented team than Arizona even if they are still missing key pieces like Jack Eichel and Shea Theodore.
“(Vegas) had a push there in the third for about seven or eight minutes, (Varlamov) made huge saves and we got some timely blocks, too,” Scott Mayfield said. “Kind of that bend, don’t break mentality, we’ve always kind of had that here. When we go up by a couple, we try to lock it down. We might play a little more in the D-zone but we make sure we get in the lanes and limit high-danger (chances) as much as possible.”
Said Lee: “Tonight was tough. Back-to-back situation, don’t have some of your pop. They had some good zone time, but we made a couple adjustments that I thought worked really well and really limited some of the circling they were able to do. Varly had a really strong game. When they did get their opportunities he was able to deny them.”
Getting goals from unexpected places was also surely a nice surprise for Lambert, as Hudson Fasching and Holmstrom staked the Islanders a 3-1 second-period lead after Smith’s first in the first period tied it earlier.
The only reason those two were in the lineup was that Kyle Palmieri and Cal Clutterbuck both came out with upper body injuries. Fasching, in particular, seems to be making a case to stay in the lineup with his second goal in his last four games. He skillfully drove the puck around Alex Pietrangelo and slid it through Logan Thompson in the second period for one of the prettier goals of the Islanders’ season.
“This season in general I’ve felt more comfortable,” said Fasching, who has spent most of his eight-year career in the AHL. “I’ve been through the ups and downs of the call-ups, eventually you’ve just got to say screw it and just go for it. That’s kind of where I’m at.”
And while the Islanders could use a little more internal competition from guys like Fasching and Holmstrom pushing for regular playing time, it’s what happens in the blue paint that is going to make or break their season more than anything else.
Varlamov offered a reminder of that on Saturday, despite not being able to close it out.
“He made every save he had to and then he made the big ones,” Mayfield said. “When they’re making those saves it just keeps us in it.”
(Top photo of Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov: Sam Morris / Associated Press)