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The Islanders’ Most Important Player Is Vulnerable Only To Friendly Fire

Semyon Varlamov #40 and Scott Mayfield #24 of the New York Islanders celebrate
Friend, or foe?
Bruce Bennett/Getty

The New York Islanders pulled their patented brand of New York Islanders crap again on Monday, as they got outshot and outplayed for most of the game against the Boston Bruins and yet still managed to bear down and get a 1-0 win. It was Jean-Gabriel Pageau who had the big moment, knocking a deflection out of the air and into the net to snap a 140-minute team scoreless streak in the late third period. But first-star honors deservedly went to Isles goalie Semyon Varlamov, who locked up his net and then swallowed the key. His 27 saves led the other team’s netminder by double digits and completely nullified a dangerous Boston offense.

Varlamov’s performance gave him two full hours of shutout hockey to start the season, and he’s already equaled or bettered his shutout stats in each of the past five seasons. His clutch stops in this tight game paired nicely with the Isles’ much more relaxing season opener, where they crushed the Rangers 4-0. In between those showings, however, is the hiccup on New York’s 2-1 record—a 5-0 drubbing by those very same Ranger boys, that time with the second-string rookie Ilya Sorokin between the posts. What was Sorokin doing there, you ask? Talk to Cal Clutterbuck about it. The Islanders vet and alternate captain felled his starting goalie in warm-ups with a snipe to the mask.

The blow knocked Varlamov out of the game and doomed the Isles to a blowout loss. It also put Clutterbuck in head coach Barry Trotz’s doghouse.

But all is well again! Cal led the team in hits on Monday, and Semyon seemed focused and healthy and ready to shelter the young Sorokin from any more stressful surprises.

“I felt a little dizzy after (the warm-up shot),” Varlamov said Monday. “Went to the locker room, then I felt fine the next morning. I skated (Sunday), felt pretty good, and Barry decided to put me in the net today.”

Of course, we’re only five percent of the way through the Islanders’ season, but outside of that burst of goalscoring early on against their rivals, there are some strong indications that this team will continue to be the same Isles that everyone’s grown to … I guess grudgingly respect? Last year’s offense was scary in the bad way, putting fewer shots on net than anybody except the Detroit Red Wings. But with the help of Varlamov and his partner Thomas Greiss—who combined for a team save percentage of .911 as they allowed the sixth-fewest goals of anyone in the league—the Islanders managed seventh place in the East and took out three straight foes in the postseason when their goalies upped their game even more. It was the same blueprint as in 2018–19, where the Trotz-led Isles were 29th in shots-for but led the league in save percentage behind the play of Greiss and Robin Lehner, who delivered them an unexpected bounce-back season after a couple years of mediocrity.

But here’s the tricky part: Greiss is in Detroit now. Lehner is in Vegas. All that remains is Varlamov and behind him is a completely unproven KHL kid who so far seems like he needs to be eased into NHL action. Strong goaltending has been the bedrock upon which the Islanders have built their recent success, and in the past two years, the team has had the luxury of putting out one of their two very good netminders in every single game. But now, there’s just Varlamov, who is suddenly more valuable than any one half of a tandem ever was.

That means the foundation upon which the Islanders have built their recent success is shakier than ever before. As evinced by Saturday’s blowout loss, all it takes is one little misfire to make this team crumble like the walls of Jericho. But when their goalie isn’t being attacked by his own teammates, watch out. Varlamov is the (very) early Vezina frontrunner and the most important piece of an Islanders team designed to torment their opponents into defeat.