And then there is this, too, for Barry Trotz to consider as he and the Islanders approach Saturday’s Game 7 against the Flyers in Toronto after having failed twice to end this second-round series:
That is, that its extremely difficult to win a potential clinching game with the second-best goaltender on the ice, and that is what Semyon Varlamov has been while being outdone by Carter Hart in Games 5 and 6.
So the coach has a critical decision here. He can stay with his No. 1, Varlamov, who has done just about all of the heavy lifting in bringing the Islanders to the precipice of their first conference finals since — all together now — 1993, but has not been quite so reliable or sharp in the last two.
Or, he can give the assignment to his backup, Thomas Greiss, whose only start of the tournament produced a 3-2, 36-save victory in Game 4 of the series …the last one won by the Islanders.
“Um, it was a tough game.” Trotz said immediately after Thursday’s 5-4 double overtime defeat when asked to evaluate Varlamov’s play. “He didn’t get a lot of shots and the start wasn’t great, so we’ll see.”
Then Friday morning, the coach said this when asked about his plan for Game 7: “Both of them are really good options for me. We’re blessed with two really good goaltenders.”
Varlamov most certainly has been a huge part of it for the Islanders under the bubble. Emerging as the clear No. 1 late in the regular season by starting 10 of the team’s final 12 games prior to the pause, the 32-year-old Russian was outstanding through the first 10 games of the postseason, going 8-2 with a .941 save pct. and 1.49 GAA.
But three of his last four starts have been a different story. He was pulled in Game 2 after allowing three goals on 10 shots in 15:09 while vulnerable on the short side. After surrendering one goal in his Game 3 victory, he has allowed nine goals on 63 shots in 167:23 in the Games 5 and 6 overtime defeats.
Perhaps fatigued, perhaps not, Varlamov has seemed to have trouble tracking the puck through traffic. He’s leaving loose pucks in front off of first shots. Too many saves seem like an adventure. He’s yielded a handful of short-siders. He’s been beaten on long ones without screens. He allowed two goals within a span of 2:33 in Game 5 before allowing two goals on two shots within 1:36 in Game 6.
Greiss, 34, is a pending free agent. These are his final days as an Islander after five seasons as parts of tandems with Jaro Halak, Robin Lehner and Varlamov. Ilya Sorokin will team with Varlamov next season. But he’s here now, and a legitimate option coming off the Game 4 victory and a season in which he posted a 2.74 GAA with a .913 save pct. while going 16-9-4 in 28 starts. There is no fuss and no muss with the German with the economical game and low pulse rate. And he is fresh.
Pondering the question whether bypassing the titular No. 1 who has three more years on his contract in favor of the No. 2 who will be out the door in a matter of weeks would upset Varlamov enough to affect his future with the organization?
Well, when John Tortorella was coaching the Lightning in the 2003 playoffs, he benched Nikolai Khabibulin in favor of John Grahame for a second-round elimination game against New Jersey. Grahame and Tampa Bay lost that one in triple overtime. Khabibulin was so enraged that he led the Lightning to the Cup the following season.
This is a mighty tough one for Trotz but this isn’t his first rodeo. Two years ago in his Cup-winning season with the Caps, he opted to go with Philipp Grubauer as his starting netminder for the first two games of the playoffs against Columbus while relegating Braden Holtby to the bench. After an overtime loss in Game 1, Grubauer was pulled in Game 2. Holtby never looked back in the championship run.
This is a different year and a different team with two different goaltenders. But the Islanders may need a boost. They may need a change. They need reliability. Twice in succession, the Islanders were a goal away and a save away from winning the series. Twice in succession, they did not get either. This is no time for the timid, on the ice or behind the bench.
Do not be surprised if the coach turns to Greiss for Game 7.