New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz will have to make a decision which didn’t often weigh on his mind during his tenure as head coach of the Washington Capitals; which of his tandem pair of goaltenders will start in net for NHL Playoffs Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning?
Varlamov Finds Early NHL Playoffs Success
If you would have asked this question at any point before Game 2 of the divisional series against Philadelphia, the answer would have been quite simple. It would have been Semyon Varlamov.
Varlamov did receive a majority of regular season starts (39) for the Islanders after all, and had seen every minute of available playing time through the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs, including the play-in round where the Islanders beat the Florida Panthers three games to one, behind Varlamov’s .929 save % and 1.75 goals against average.
Varlamov would put up another impressive series performance against Alex Ovechkin and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. The Islanders would lose just their second game of the playoffs on their way to a four to one series victory. Varlamov saw 124 shots from the high-powered Capital offense, and was able to turn away 116 of them. It was somewhat surprising given what we all know the Capitals can do to opposing goaltenders, but the talented Russian netminder was able to post even better stats than he had against Florida.
Ultimately, Varlamov earned himself a .935 save %, with a 1.6 goals against average to boot. He would also polish off the series with a shut-out in the series clinching game five.
Confidence is High for Trotz & CO.
With those numbers in mind, Islanders players, fans and coaches alike had to have been feeling pretty confident in their starter heading into Game 1 of a tough match up against the defensive minded Philadelphia Flyers.
The Islanders goaltender would not disappoint, posting his second consecutive shut-out in a 4-0 victory.
Everything was going smoothly for the sixth-seeded Islanders, who were rolling both offensively and defensively. At this point, they had won eight out of the last 10 games against elite competition, brutally outscoring them 34-15.
Then, the puck dropped on Game 2.
Varlamov was yanked just 15 minutes and nine seconds into the first period after allowing three goals on just ten shots, which provided an opportunity for Thomas Greiss to see his first minutes of 2020 playoff action.
Greiss was ready, and played well throughout the remainder of the game, making 20 saves and allowing one goal in overtime.
Despite the successful showing in relief, Trotz would elect to go back to Varlamov in game three.
It should be noted that Greiss is not your typical back-up goaltender. He is a veteran who has seen success in this league, and played significant time this season, posting a line of .913 save % with a 2.74 goals against average across 31 games played and 29 starts.
It only makes sense though that Trotz would elect to go back to the man who provided him with 10 very solid NHL Playoffs starts.
Varlamov indeed got the nod and started game three, making 26-of-27 saves on his way to yet another Islanders victory.
NHL Playoffs Boycott
Game 4 of the series would be postponed because of the NHL’s decision to follow suit, and support the NBA’s choice to boycott their games as a response to police brutality, specifically the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, WI.
Because of this delay, the teams were forced to play on back to back nights. This threw a wrinkle in the Islanders plan which was playing out so perfectly.
For no other reason than avoiding playing the same goalie on back-to-back nights, Trotz elected to try his luck with Thomas Greiss. This was not a knock on Varlamov, or a doubt that he could get the job done two nights in a row. It was simply about thinking ahead, and sustaining your goaltender while giving him ample time to recover. We saw these same decisions have to be made by clubs like Vegas and Dallas, as well as the Islanders opponent Philadelphia who elected to start Brian Elliot over the young and extremely talented Carter Hart.
Greiss came up big for the Islanders, making 36 saves on 38 shot attempts, and proved he was capable of handling a bigger role in these 2020 NHL Playoffs.
His cause would also be helped by the fact that, for whatever reason, Varlamov would look like a shell of himself over the next few games.
I cannot tell you why arguably the hottest goaltender in the playoffs all of a sudden turned cold, but that is exactly what happened.
He allowed nine goals over the next two games, both of which ended up as overtime losses, and allowed the Flyers to force a Game 7.
Trotz showed us all why he is a Stanley Cup winning coach by sending Thomas Greiss out there with full confidence in Game 7. Sometimes as a head coach, you just need to change something up for the good of your squad. You need new hope and to create confidence and momentum. He obviously made the right decision as Greiss posted a shut-out in a game seven that was never really competitive, but was a game seven none the less.
Varlamov was just not the same goaltender during the Flyers series that he had been in the previous two. He posted a .875 save% with a 2.6 goals against average, and allowed 13 total goals, just two less than he allowed in the first two series combined.
NYI Turn to Greiss for Answers
Greiss, on the other hand, had forced Trotz to take notice and made the best of his opportunity each and every time he touched the ice.
Though his playing time was limited compared to Varlamov, which some will argue skews the numbers, he was impressive, posting a .966 save% with a 1.00 goals against average, as well as the aforementioned NHL Playoffs Game 7 shutout, and looked as though he was the correct option moving forward into the Tampa Bay series.
Then, the puck dropped on Game 1.
This time, it was Greiss was pulled just 10 minutes and 46 seconds into the first period, after allowing three goals on nine shots.
Varlamov then took back his familiar position between the pipes, but things did not go any better for him.
Tampa Bay Lighting – A Different Animal
Tampa Bay was pouring it on all night. They scored twice in the second period, and then three more times in the third, winning the game by a final score of 8-2.
Varlamov obviously entered the game in a tough position, but that cannot be an excuse. He has now gone three consecutive games allowing four goals or more, and has only had a save percentage above .900 in one of his last five games.
Both of these goalies got absolutely shelled during game one, and the hopes are that they can both have a short memory and shake it off.
Coach Trotz will not have long to ponder the decision, as the Islanders face off against the Lightning again Wednesday night September 9th.
Varlamov’s confidence is obviously shaken. You could see it in his body language all throughout game one.
Despite being pulled, Greiss is probably in a better head space, having only endured 10 minutes of disappointing/sub-par play.
Trotz to Make Difficult Decision in NHL Playoffs
It’s a tough choice. Do you go with the backup, who has been very good, but in a short sample size, or do you go with your top guy in hopes he can play himself back into form.
I personally would run it back with Greiss one more time, and if it doesn’t go well, you know you can die on the Varlamov hill no matter what happens the rest of the NHL Playoffs.
I also personally don’t think it will end up mattering too much. This Tampa Bay Lightning squad is scary, and they made eight goals look completely effortless in game one.
Pair that up with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy playing at his best between the pipes, and you get a magical run that is about to come to an abrupt ending.