The New York Islanders’ record in the NHL’s East Division after 11 games stands at 5-4-2 following the club’s 2-0 shutout of the New York Rangers on Wednesday night.
Not great. But not as bad as it looked in late January.
After starting the season impressively at 3-1, the Islanders suffered through a five-game winless streak before they regained their focus and increased their intensity. They have now chalked up two straight victories.
The shutout over the Rangers restored some confidence in the team after it went into something of a death spiral. Semyon Varlamov made history too. He became the first Islanders goalie with two shutouts against the Rangers in the same season.
“Varly was huge for us tonight,” coach Barry Trotz said on Monday.
Varlamov has racked up 54 saves in the back-to-back shutouts against the Rangers after allowing 13 goals on 91 shots (.857 save percentage) against them last season.
Varlamov had timely saves against the Rangers, and the Islanders’ patience was rewarded.
Varlamov first came up big against Rangers’ Artemi Panarin on a breakaway at 1:57 in the third period and then stopped Mika Zibanejad on a two-on-one with Chris Kreider.
“When you’re facing these shots against the biggest players in the league and you make the save, it gives you some boost,” Varlamov said. “We needed those saves.”
Said Trotz: “Our bench sort of perked up at that point.”
Varlamov stones Panarin on the breakaway pic.twitter.com/wF3rrW8fhu
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) February 9, 2021
It was on Saturday that the Islanders seemed to get back on track with a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, overcoming a 3-2 deficit in the third period. And, in both victories, it was the role players who took the pressure off the scoring stars.
The lack of secondary scoring and the marvelous play of Semyon Varlamov in the Islanders net have been the dominant themes so far this season.
Three Shutouts Lead League
Varlamov has three shutouts so far this season, including two against the Rangers, which accounts for three of the team’s five victories. The 6-foot-2 goaltender from Samara, Russia, is 5-2-1 and he’s the league leader in shutouts. No one else has more than two.
“Varlamov has been solid all year,” forward Jordan Eberle said after the Pittsburgh victory on Saturday. “Even going back to last year, he’s been really good. He’s stolen us a couple of games already this year.”
It’s hard to think where the Islanders would be without Varlamov. He is also among the league leaders in save percentage (.932) and goals-against average (1.88).
Varlamov’s statistics put him ahead of Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who were the two last Vezina Trophy winners.
At 32, Varlamov is at his peak. Goalies mature later than everyday players, and this is turning out to be a special year for the former Washington Capitals draft pick.
Bailey giving Varlamov the game puck for winning his 500th NHL game is everything. 🥺 pic.twitter.com/sdegnCexUM
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) February 7, 2021
In the victory against Pittsburgh, Varlamov played in his 500th career game, becoming the third goalie to play his 500th game in an Islander uniform (Billy Smith and Dwayne Roloson).
Varlamov got off to a hot start this season. When he blanked Boston on Jan. 18, Varlamov became the first Islanders goalie to record a shutout in each of his first two appearances of a season and was just the 14th goaltender in history to do so.
And his shutout streak of 142:10 was the eighth longest scoreless streak to start a season in NHL history. He had previously broken Rick DiPietro’s club-record scoreless streak to start the season (115:35 achieved in 2003-04).
Varlamov works under ideal conditions. The defensive structure by the Islanders is based on limiting opponents’ scoring chances. But Varlamov has had his work cut out for him occasionally.
Against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 26, Varlamov faced a season-high 37 shots and made 34 saves in a 3-2 loss.
Varlamov was a key performer in helping the Islanders advance to the Eastern Conference Finals last season for the first time since 1993. He posted an 11-7 record, a 2.14 GAA and a .921 save percentage in 20 playoff appearances.
And along the way, Varlamov established a franchise postseason record shutout streak of 138:17, which was a mark previously established by Billy Smith during the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Varlamov has taken years to develop and shake off injuries and personal trials.
After being drafted by the Capitals in the second round of 2006, Varlamov played mostly with the Capitals’ minor-league affiliate, the Hershey Bears of the AHL. He played his first NHL game on Dec. 13, 2008 against the Montreal Canadiens and made 32 saves to win his NHL debut. He was named first star of the game.
In his home debut five days later, Varlamov made 29 saves on 31 shots against the St. Louis Blues and was named second star of the game in a 4-2 Capitals win.
But Varlamov eventually lost out to Michal Neuvirth for the goalie-of-the-future tag with Washington, and Neuvirth is no longer in the NHL.
In 2011, Varlamov was traded to the Colorado Avalanche as a restricted free agent for two draft picks, but injuries and personal difficulties, including domestic violence charges, which were later dropped, resulted in Varlamov never reaching his potential in Colorado.
On July 1, 2019, Varlamov signed as a free agent with the Islanders. His four-year contract was worth $20 million.
The Islanders will ride Varlamov as long as they can. But in this compressed, 56-game season, the Islanders will have to depend on backup Ilya Sorokin at various times. So far, the Islanders have not supported Sorokin well, and Sorokin has been shaky in his first three outings.
Sorokin (0-2-1) is still waiting for his first win and needs to improve his save percentage (.871) and the Islanders have to help him improve his goals-against average (3.65).
But with Varlamov playing so well, the Islanders are hanging onto the fourth and final playoff position in a very tough East Division behind Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
The Islanders will likely go back to Varlamov on Thursday at home against Pittsburgh and at home against Boston on Saturday. But next week, the Islanders are on the road for back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres, and Sorokin will no doubt get the start in one of those games.
The two-goalie system has never been so important in this pandemic-shortened season. The Islanders need not only Varlamov to be good, but Sorokin to be better, if they are to have any chance of team success.