A brief hiccup bridging the Islanders’ current playoff series and their previous one appears to have been eradicated now by Semyon Varlamov, who has reclaimed his spot as the starter in goal with two consecutive strong performances between the pipes.
Varlamov’s latest showing — particularly early in a 5-3 Game 3 victory Friday night over the Lightning — backstopped the Isles to their first win of the Eastern Conference finals with a chance to even the series Sunday afternoon in Game 4 in Edmonton.
Thomas Greiss had started and posted a shutout in the Game 7 clincher one round earlier against the Philadelphia Flyers, but he was chased in the first period of an 8-2 loss in the opener against the Lightning.
“I think the great thing is having two goaltenders, but I thought the first 10 minutes of that game, it could have been out of reach real early,” Isles coach Barry Trotz said in a Zoom call Saturday. “I thought Tampa came out buzzing, they had a long shift right off the bat, and I think they had three or four scoring chances and Varly had to be really sharp.
“We mismanaged the puck a couple of times, we threw it into the middle of the ice … and he had to come up with some big saves early, which was really key any time you’re gonna win a hockey game. But [Friday] night he was the difference, especially early, and I thought we settled in after that. He had a good game.”
Late goals by Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (empty net) pushed the Isles ahead from a 3-3 tie, but the 32-year-old Varlamov executed 34 saves to record his 10th win of this postseason run. He is the only Isles goalie other than Hall of Famer and four-time Stanley Cup winner Billy Smith (1980-84) to reach double digits in wins in one playoff year.
“[Varlamov] has been there for us all along,’’ said forward Cal Clutterbuck, who scored the Isles’ first goal. “Obviously, he came up huge for us a couple times. We broke down a couple times — and that’s something we’ll have to tighten up — but he was there when we needed him [Friday night].’’
Varlamov also was sturdy in Game 2 — though the Isles lost, 2-1, in heartbreaking fashion on Nikita Kucherov’s winner with 8.8 seconds remaining in regulation.
Trotz’s team also will need that net play to continue against a Lightning squad that hasn’t lost consecutive games during this postseason. The Isles are 4-12 in their history when trailing a seven-game series two games to one, but they haven’t won one (0-6) since upsetting Pittsburgh in seven games in the second round in 1993.
“Obviously after Game 1, we knew we had to bounce back. I think Game 2 we played a pretty good game, played how we want to play. But we just have to keep building here,” Isles defenseman Ryan Pulock said.
“We’re gonna get their best game tomorrow, and we’ve gotta have our best game,” Trotz added. “You’re in a position where you can get it to a best-of-3. We’ve gotta make sure we do everything in our power that it gets to that best-out-of-3.”