After the final horn sounded on the Islanders’ series-tying Game 4 win last weekend, veteran goaltender Semyon Varlamov waited at the end of the celebration line as his teammates took turns congratulating rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin for backstopping, at the time, his second win of the series with 29 saves.
Varlamov, who was relegated to the bench after rocky performances in the Isles’ two losses in Games 2 and 3, threw his arms around his fellow Russian once it was his turn. The two shared a lengthy embrace.
The Islanders highlight their close-knit locker room all the time, and it doesn’t stop at their goalie tandem. Though, the current dynamic between Sorokin and Varlamov is unique.
Varlamov has been the team’s No. 1 goalie this season, after sharing the net rather equally with Thomas Greiss (now with the Red Wings) during his first season on Long Island in 2019-20. But Sorokin is not your typical backup netminder.
The third-round pick in 2014 has been one of the most highly anticipated players in recent memory. Now that he’s finally in the NHL, after a stellar career in the KHL, Sorokin has continuously gotten more comfortable with the North American game and it has shown through his three starts of this first-round series against the Penguins.
Sorokin has stopped 116 of the 122 shots he’s faced heading into a potential series-deciding Game 6 Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum. He may have earned the starting nod in Game 1 because Varlamov was held out for precautionary reasons after sustaining an injury in the regular-season finale, but Sorokin has been the go-to following a few blunders from Varlamov in Games 2 and 3.
Asked about the dynamic between his two goaltenders Wednesday morning, head coach Barry Trotz had nothing but positives to relay.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “I think as friends, as teammates, and countrymen. If you know anything about Varly, Varly is a great mentor for not only a Russian goalie but any goalie in the NHL. He’s got a great demeanor.”
Varlamov, who is under contract through 2022-23, is coming off of one of the most successful seasons in team history after leading the NHL with a career-best seven shutouts. He also posted career highs in save percentage (.929) and goals-against average (2.04).
With 13 seasons of NHL experience, Varlamov has shared many nets, beginning his career with the Capitals and then spending eight seasons with the Avalanche. Even during the Isles’ playoff run last season, Trotz went with Greiss in Game 7 of the second-round series against the Flyers.
So it’s not surprising that Varlamov hasn’t been fazed by Sorokin’s emergence during this first round. The 33-year-old has taken Sorokin under his wing since he arrived. During training camp, Sorokin referred to Varlamov as his big brother that he’s been able to learn from.
Varlamov is not a bad mentor to have, especially when expectations of Sorokin are higher than most rookies.
“I’ll just put it this way: You guys pump your tires a little bit,” Trotz said in response to reporters pouring on the praise for Sorokin. “He’s played well in this series. To me, greatness is about longevity. Look on the other side. Sidney Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and those guys have been really good players and elite players for a decade. Ilya hasn’t proved it yet in the league, but it’s a good start.
“He’s had a couple of good games here. He’s had a good season for us. But you can hold on a little bit on that, because you have to do it over time, and that will be the test.”