The Islanders maintained that their starting goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, would be ready to play by the start of the first round, but he was ultimately scratched as a precaution.
Varlamov, who sustained a lower-body injury in the regular-season finale, was a full participant in the Islanders’ last team practice on Thursday before they traveled to Pittsburgh for the opening of their first-round playoff series against the Penguins. He also skated 35-40 minutes on Friday with the team’s taxi squad.
Head coach Barry Trotz said all last week that he expected Varlamov to be ready for Game 1 on Sunday, but the staff felt it was better to be safe than sorry. So rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin got the starting nod for his first career playoff game, which came with his first taste of postseason overtime.
“We had to make a decision really [Saturday] night,” Trotz said after the Islanders’ 4-3 win. “[Varlamov] skated both days, he’s going to practice tomorrow as well. We just thought long-term. That’s one thing we think we have, two capable goalies. And if we want to have success we’re going to need both of them.
“So we just said, ‘You know what? Let’s do what’s right, let’s not risk anything here. Let’s be cautious.’ We’ll give him another day of practice and then he’ll be 100 percent.”
Sorokin was tested throughout the game, but managed 39 saves on 42 shots — including 10 stops in overtime. The 25-year-old Russian didn’t falter through three Penguins power plays. When he was the reason the Islanders were on the penalty kill late in the first period, Sorokin made a sensational save on Sidney Crosby.
After Sorokin tripped up Penguins left winger Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh trapped the Islanders’ penalty-kill unit in their zone for the entire two-minute man-advantage. But a handful of blocks and Sorokin’s toe save on Crosby kept it tied at the time.
“I was really impressed,” Trotz said of Sorokin. “He made a couple of huge saves, he made a toe save on Sid on the power play. I thought he was really sharp on our power play late in the second period, we had to get through that 2-1 game, if we don’t kill that power play off, I think we’re probably not sitting here as winning the first game.”
The Islanders’ last two trade-deadline acquisitions propelled the team to victory Sunday.
Kyle Palmieri’s two goals and Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s three-point effort, including the assist on Palmieri’s game winner, gave the Islanders a 1-0 series lead heading into Game 2 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
“I knew that they would,” Trotz said. “When you look at the two trade deadline acquisitions, last year, Pageau, and this year, Palmieri, they are veteran guys that are proven. They usually, when it comes to playoff hockey and big moments, you rely on their experience there. Their character is exceptional.”
Pageau, who the Islanders acquired from the Senators last season, scored early in the third to make it a 2-2 game.
“I was aiming five-hole,” he said. “It just came up on me and I was trying to shoot as hard as I can and trying to score, we were down a goal so.”
Travis Zajac, the other piece of the Palmieri trade-deadline exchange with the Devils, was scratched for the fifth time since joining the Islanders. He hasn’t played since the team’s second-to-last game of the regular season, May 8.