The Islanders’ goalie entered with a shutout streak. He left on the bench.
By Curtis Rush
Suddenly, the New York Islanders’ focus has shifted, from the confidence in a franchise record-setting goaltender, to having concerns about how Semyon Varlamov will bounce back from his worst performance of the NHL postseason on Wednesday.
Varlamov entered Game 2 on Wednesday coming off back-to-back shutouts, and achieved a record shutout streak in Islanders playoff history in the first period. But the Philadelphia Flyers chased him from his net and withstood a frenetic comeback before pulling out a 4-3 victory in overtime.
Varlamov had a .941 save percentage going into the game, but registered a shaky performance after giving up three goals on 10 shots.
That left the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal tied 1-1 with the swing Game 3 on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
Varlamov was not sharp, as if his mind was on breaking Billy Smith’s franchise playoff shutout streak instead of on winning the game.
It took only 40 seconds for Varlamov to break the mark, but his record roll didn’t last long and neither did Varlamov.
He was pulled in favor of backup Thomas Greiss late in the first period after the Flyers had scored three goals. In Greiss’ first action of this postseason, he stopped 20 shots.
“He looked very comfortable, which is a great sign,” said Barry Trotz, the Islanders coach.
“As we say, you have to be ready in the playoffs,” Trotz continued. “He was definitely ready.”
Instead of falling on their faces with the backup in goal, the Islanders stayed patient and went on the attack, giving Carter Hart, the Flyers’ goalie, his own troubles at the other end.
Anders Lee scored in the second period while Anthony Beauvillier and Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored soft goals in the third to force overtime. Pageau’s goal tied the game with 2:09 left in regulation on a play that was challenged by Philadelphia as offside.
The Flyers were penalized for delay of game for the unsuccessful challenge, giving the Islanders a power play that almost resulted in a go-ahead goal.
Instead, the Flyers won the game when Philippe Myers’ shot from the point deflected off Lee’s stick past Greiss at 2:41 of overtime.
“I liked the fact that we were resilient,” Trotz said of the comeback effort, adding that he lifted Varlamov early to give the team a “spark.”
He said the goals that Varlamov allowed weren’t all his fault, but a result of missing some details in the Islanders’ defensive zone and giving up odd-man rushes.
“We didn’t help him enough,” Trotz said.
Varlamov’s uncharacteristic performance was one of the story lines with a quick turnaround before Game 3. But Hart’s confidence could also be in question after the Islanders stormed back on a couple of soft goals in the third period.
“We understood that there was plenty of game left and a lot of things can happen,” Lee said after the game.
Varlamov’s record streak is now an afterthought after what transpired early in Game 2. His shutout sequence ended at 1:38.17, only 1:18 longer than the previous mark set by Smith during the playoffs in 1980, when the franchise won the first of its four consecutive titles.
After the Islanders had controlled the early part of the game, Kevin Hayes snapped a high wrist shot by Varlamov with Philadelphia’s first shot on goal.
Hayes scored again later that period, with Sean Couturier adding a third goal with less than five minutes left in the period on the Flyers’ 10th shot. That’s when Varlamov was pulled for Greiss.
The big question for the Flyers heading into the game was when their big line of Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek would start to click. Giroux is still looking for his first goal of the playoffs, but he contributed with an assist on Couturier’s first postseason goal. The second line centered by Hayes dominated for the Flyers.
Varlamov was clearly off his game, although he gave no indication before the game that the record was weighing on his mind.
Before Game 2, the last goal he had allowed came off the stick of the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin 3:40 into the third period of Game 4 of the first round. That was more than a week ago.
“At this point, it’s not about the shutouts,” Varlamov said before Game 2. “The most important thing for me is to get the win and get ready for the next game. But, of course, I’m excited about it.”
Now, after Greiss gave a solid performance in relief, the question remains whether Varlamov’s confidence will be shaken for Game 3 with hardly any time to recover emotionally from the loss. Trotz did not tip his hand on which goalie would start on Thursday.
Varlamov, who joined the Islanders as a free agent last July by signing a four-year, $20 million contract, does not have a lot of playoff experience.
This has been his first appearance in the postseason since 2014 when, playing in Colorado, the Avalanche lost a seven-game series to the Minnesota Wild in the first round.
The series with the Flyers has been billed in part as a battle between Varlamov, the veteran at 32 and his counterpart, the Flyers’ 22-year-old sensation Hart, who registered two consecutive shutouts in Games 3 and 4 against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
But as good as Hart has been this postseason, he seemed to fight the puck in the last part of the game in making 31 saves, and Beauvillier’s third-period goal, which slipped under Hart’s arm, gave the Islanders life.
Trotz wants his players to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable. Now that the record shutout streak is over, Varlamov has to go from feeling uncomfortable to comfortable quickly.
Game 3 is the all-important “swing game,” Trotz said, and the Islanders’ emotions could also swing between being inspired by their comeback and deflated that it fell short.
“Obviously, you want to complete the comeback,” Trotz said. “That’s the disappointing part. The positive is it reinforces a lot of the things that you were able to do to get back in the game.”