The New York Islanders’ goaltending was the story of the season last year and in parts of 2019-20. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss won the Jennings Trophy in 2018-19 for allowing the fewest goals, and Semyon Varlamov and Greiss each ranked in the top-10 in goals against and save percentage for the first month of this season.
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The Islanders started out the year rotating goaltenders through the first 33 games, but after Greiss went through a bit of a tough stretch, Varlamov took over the starting position. More recently, Greiss has seen more of the playing time, but has really struggled. However, the defense in front of him has not helped out.
New York lost Adam Pelech to a season-ending Achilles injury in pregame warm-ups last month and the team has suffered. His play didn’t always necessarily show up in the stats, but the team’s goals against have really skyrocketed. He has missed 18 games, and in those, the Islanders have allowed two or more goals 17 times. The only exception came in a 1-0 shutout over the Colorado Avalanche.
While Noah Dobson has definitely settled in, it has given increased ice time to other players. Veteran Johnny Boychuk’s ice time has gone up at times this season and the Islanders have closely monitored Dobson in third periods. New York has struggled to protect leads and have made a habit of giving up goals in the final minutes.
The veteran net-minder signed with the Islanders in the offseason looking to resurrect his career. Varlamov has been a Vezina Trophy finalist, but started to see less time in net for the Avalanche. Hoping director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco could help Varlamov, the Islanders took a gamble on a long-term deal for Varlamov after electing not to pursue Sergei Bobrovsky last summer. Varlamov was signed to a four year deal worth $20 million.
It has been a huge success, but Varlamov has had a couple of tough games. He has been the beneficiary of the hot Islanders’ offense, winning two games in which he allowed three goals this month. His numbers are also skewed a bit as he has had to replace Greiss in net multiple times this season in games where the Islanders barely showed up.
Varlamov has also played well in overtime this season as well as in shootouts. While he only has one win in the shootout, he has given up just three goals in three shootouts this season. With the Islanders turning to Lehner in last season’s playoff run, Varlamov is likely going to be given the first crack at starting if the Islanders make the playoffs. While Greiss has shown the ability to win a playoff series, Varlamov has earned that shot so far. However, that could change with a couple of poor performances.
Whether it is just a rough stretch or not, Greiss has really become a liability in net. The concerns mostly come from some of the soft goals that Greiss has given up. It was never more clear than the game against the Vancouver Canucks when Greiss let in a couple of shots he would like back as well as the overtime winner from Quinn Hughes. He’s been pulled on several occasions this season. Most of the shots that have beaten him of late have come from long range.
Playing in the final year of his contract with New York, Greiss is going to be looking for a long-term deal. For most of his time with the Islanders, he showed he can possibly be a No. 1 goaltender, but it is hard to see a team commit to him. If he can play well in the final few months of the season, it may help him as the Islanders potentially have a superstar in Ilya Sorokin coming over from the Kontinental Hockey League. Greiss makes a very good backup goaltender for a team without a superstar.
The road ahead will be tough for both goaltenders as they face off against three strong Western Conference opponents in the Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes and Avalanche. With games every other day, neither goaltender will get much practice time and have to find their rhythm in crucial regular-season games.
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Matt Rothman is a 2018 graduate from Florida Gulf Coast University receiving his bachelor degree in journalism. Originally from Long Island, he moved to Parkland shortly after high school. Matt worked as the assistant sports editor for his school paper, eaglenews.com in college becoming just one of nine students in his graduation class to serve over 1,000 community service hours. His goal is to travel to every Major League Baseball stadium, and has been to multiple US Open finals.