Courtesy Twitter: @NYIslanders

Leen Amin

The veteran has struggled and could potentially ride the bench from here on out.

The New York Islanders haven’t looked their best to begin the 2021 playoffs, but they’ve done enough to tie their opening series against the Pittsburgh Penguins four games in.

The Islanders’ struggles have come from a variety of places, including a lack of offense. The Islanders are a much more defensive-minded team, but they still must score at a higher rate.

The top line, headlined by Mathew Barzal, in particular has been disappointing. Barzal is the team’s best player and a phenomenal center.

One of the most creative centermen in hockey, his coaching staff, teammates, and fans expect more out of him. Captain Anders Lee’s absence has been glaring, as well.

However, an important factor regarding the Islanders’ struggles is the goaltending. It’s also been one of their strengths.

The Islanders have won the two games that the rookie Ilya Sorokin started and lost the two games that the veteran Semyon Varlamov started. Now, it looks like Sorokin might have unseated Varlamov for the starting job.

With that being said, was starting Varlamov in games two and three a mistake by Barry Trotz and the coaching staff? Hindsight will tell you that it was, but it’s difficult to blame them for making the decision, at the time.

Here’s why.

Varlamov solidified his role with the team last season, his first with the Islanders, and was particularly excellent in the playoffs.

He had a 2.14 GAA and .921 SV% with a 2.6 GSAA in 20 playoff games. Varlamov was one of the best goaltenders in the bubble and was a significant reason why the Islanders made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 25-year-old Ilya Sorokin made his long-awaited debut with the Islanders this season. He was one of their very best prospects and one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey.

Even with his arrival, Varlamov was considered to be the number one option in net for New York. He ended up proving that he deserved it.

Varlamov was one of the best goalies in the NHL during the 2021 regular season. Here are some of his numbers: 36 GP, .926 SV%, 2.04 GA, 7 shutouts (led NHL), and 22 GSAA (led NHL). He was top-10, and sometimes top-five, in practically all categories.

Of course, the fact that Sorokin didn’t get off the greatest of starts helped make Trotz’s decision regarding his goalies easier.

However, Sorokin improved significantly over time and the Islanders’ goaltending tandem became one of the best in the NHL. Even so, it was almost a given that Varlamov was still the number one option.

Because Varlamov had been so great during the regular season and because he showed how good he can be on the grandest stage during the bubble in 2020, it was obvious that he would be the starter in the playoffs.

An injury prevented Varlamov from playing in game one. Sorokin wasn’t amazing, but was good enough to contribute to the team’s win, which they earned thanks primarily to poor goaltending by Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry.

Varlamov was deemed healthy enough to start game two, and that’s when the Islanders’ fortunes began to turn. The Islanders exhibited a myriad of offensive weaknesses in games two and three, both of which were started by Varlamov.

However, Varlamov himself looked very shaky and deserves some of the blame for the two losses. He only conceded two goals in game two, made an impressive 43 saves, and was far from the Islanders’ biggest concern on that particular day.

However, the first goal he conceded was a soft one and the game could’ve ended differently had he made a stop there.

If he made a save and everything else happened the way that they did, the game would’ve gone to overtime and the Islanders could’ve come away with a win.

The best teams need their goalies to come up with big saves while making the stops that they’re expected to make, especially when the players in front of them aren’t at their best.

Things got worse for Varlamov in game three, when he gave up a whopping five goals and was the worst player on the ice. Thankfully for the fans, Trotz realized that something isn’t right with Varlamov and turned to Sorokin for game four.

Sorokin conceded just one goal and was one of the best players in the game, leading his team to victory and allowing them to tie the series at two.

It appears as though the Islanders’ net is now Sorokin’s to lose. Coaches must ride the hot hand, especially during the playoffs, and Sorokin is the obvious choice.

Varlamov is a reason why the Islanders lost the two games that they did, but Trotz and co. can’t be blamed for turning to him. He was one of the best goalies in hockey during the bubble in 2020 and during the 2021 regular season.

And why would the coaches turn to an inexperienced rookie when they have a proven and capable veteran?

Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy for us to sit here and say Trotz should’ve rolled with Sorokin the whole way instead of switching to Varlamov. However, all signs pointed to Varlamov being the right choice and he had the resume to back it up.

Starting Sorokin is the right thing to do but the question is, can he keep up this solid play throughout?