Just as exactly nobody predicted, the goaltending/scoring duo of Ilya Sorokin and Kyle Palmieri took center stage for the Islanders on Sunday afternoon, leading New York to a 4-3 overtime win in Pittsburgh to start the Isles’ playoffs off on the right note. Sorokin, a rookie and backup, surprisingly started Game 1 between the pipes after Semyon Varlamov—he of the second-best save percentage in the NHL—was a scratch due to a recurring knee issue. And Palmieri … well, he’s been a regular in the lineup since the team traded a first-round pick to get him from the Devils last month, but he’d been just some anonymous skater so far with the team, scoring a mere two goals and picking up two assists in 17 games.
These two were the key factors in delivering the win, and their work raises a very scary question: If the Isle Boys took their first playoff game behind 1) a second-string goalie making his first-ever playoff start and 2) a new acquisition who was clearly struggling to get comfortable with his new team, how much better can they be under more ideal circumstances?
Let’s start with Sorokin, whose contributions don’t immediately stand out given the 4-3 final and the fact that he got in the box score early for a dangerous tripping penalty on Jake Guentzel. (He would kill it off.) There were multiple stretches—particularly at the beginning of the first and second periods—where the Penguins just absolutely took it to the Isles, playing five-on-five like it was a power play. In those moments, Sorokin acquitted his defense nicely, piling up 39 stops on 42 shots. And two of those Penguins goals were an impossible deflection by Crosby and an incredible shot by Kasperi Kapanen, who had way too much ice to set up in.
And here’s a couple of the sweet saves he made. He had excellent positioning for a toe stop at the end of the first:
And got dramatic with the leg stretch early in the second:
Head coach Barry Trotz, who said that Sorokin “had a smile on his face” when he heard he was going to start, credited the 25-year-old’s experiencing winning the Russian equivalent of the Conn Smythe with CSKA Moscow back in 2019 as a key reason why he was able to stay calm under pressure with such little notice in a huge game.
“He is as levelheaded a goaltender that you’re going to meet,” Trotz said. “Those experiences of winning in the KHL, which is an extremely good league, he’s always had success and he’s a confident guy. I think it’s probably a combination of both.”
“He was super calm before the game,” added JG Pageau. “He’s a goalie who is as confident as they come.”
But the Islanders also don’t win if they don’t score four goals, and half of those came via Palmieri’s stick, as the former Devil and Duck seized his first postseason opportunity since a 2018 first-round exit and very quickly doubled his Islanders goal tally. The very first Long Island native to play in the ‘yoffs for the team needed just eight minutes to become the first-ever Long Islander to score for New York in the postseason, getting some well-deserved luck with a nothing shot that exposed Tristan Jarry for the 1-0 lead.
Palmieri’s five-day layoff between the end of the regular season and Game 1 was his longest stretch of gameless action since arriving in New York, and to hear him tell it, those days were crucial towards helping him finally settle in with his hometown club.
“One of the bigger things was we were able to have a couple practices,” he said afterwards. “You’re pretty focused on rest and getting ready for the playoffs, good to get a couple practices in, get a little more familiar with the system.”
An order of magnitude more thrilling than the opener was the goal that finally ended the game, 68 minutes later. What a beauty this one was. A backhanded pass from Pageau in the corner had way too much juice on it, causing the puck to bounce up when it hit Palmieri’s stick. But no matter. The game’s first star calmly waited for it to drop back to the ice and then without hesitation sent it flying up and above Jarry’s shoulder and just under the bar. Game over.
Palmieri, to be clear, is not some scrub who rose up to become an out-of-nowhere hero. He scored between 24 and 30 goals for the Devils every year from 2015–16 through last season, and when the Islanders added him down the stretch, it was with the expectation that he could help balance the team a bit more (they were second in goals against but 20th in goals for.) That didn’t happen in the regular season, but since the Isles easily made the postseason anyway, the past doesn’t matter as long as he can score now.
“You want to do your best to try and contribute, make sure you’re doing the things they brought you in to do,” Palmieri said, before putting his job much more bluntly.
“I was brought here to help this team win.”
Update (5/18 10:32 a.m.): A previous version of the blog had the wrong day for Game 1.