By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Game 6 between the Islanders and Penguins on Wednesday night was an utterly insane spectacle, as roughly 9,000 fans created absolute bedlam during an over-the-top exciting 5-3 win for the home team. With the Bruins watching from afar, it became quite clear that winning games in Nassau Coliseum will not be easy.READ MORE: Kiermaier Ends Combined No-Hit Bid, Rays Top Red Sox 1-0
What also seems clear is that the Islanders have to ride their rookie goaltender for as far as he’ll take them. The 25-year-old Ilya Sorokin shined against Pittsburgh, winning all four games of the series while posting a .943 save percentage and 1.95 GAA. He did let in three goals in what was a wild back-and-forth start to Game 6, but he settled in to stop the final 26 shots he faced, with that Long Island crowd reacting to each one of them as if the Stanley Cup had just been won.
Given that record, head coach Barry Trotz obviously has no choice but to keep Sorokin between the pipes when the second-round series vs. Boston begins. And surely, he will. But it’s not that simple.
While Sorokin was the Game 1 starter vs. Pittsburgh and won, Trotz went to veteran Semyon Varlamov for Game 2. Considering Varlamov posted a .929 save percentage, 2.04 GAA, and a league-leading seven shutouts this season, that made sense. The 33-year-old Varlamov is a legitimate Vezina candidate, and thus he got his chances in round one.
Unfortunately for him, it didn’t go very well.
He let in a wretched goal to put his team behind 2-0 in Game 2 …
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) May 18, 2021
… a mental gaffe which allowed a goal that proved to be the game-winner.READ MORE: After Three-Assist Night, Revolution Midfielder Carles Gil Named MLS Player Of The Week
He did, however, stop 43 of 45 shots in that game. So he earned another shot.
In Game 3, Varlamov and Tristan Jarry seemingly competed to allow the most goals. Varlamov allowed five goals on 27 shots, while Jarry allowed four goals on 30 shots, doing just enough to give Pittsburgh the win.
After that, Trotz went back to Sorokin and never looked back, as the rookie allowed just three goals on 80 shots in winning efforts in Games 4 and 5. And while Game 6 saw some pucks find the back of the net, Sorokin’s finish was impressive.
So based on recent performance, there’s not much of a decision for Trotz to make. But that’s where the Bruins come in.
In a year when Varlamov was one of the best goalies in the league, he was at his best when facing the Boston Bruins. He went 5-1-0 against Boston this season, with a .943 save percentage and a 1.93 GAA. He allowed just nine even-strength goals in his seven starts, and he had a shutout early in the year as well. He had a chance to earn another win but left the regular-season finale after the second period with the score tied at 2-2.
Sorokin got just one start vs. the Bruins, plus the third period and overtime in that regular-season finale. He was by no means bad against Boston — he stopped 25 of 27 shots faced in a losing effort in mid-May, and he allowed only Taylor Hall’s nasty overtime winner in that relief spot in Boston — but his .921 save percentage and 2.23 GAA is notably not on Varlamov’s level.
Add in the factor of inexperience, and the fact that the TD Garden will be filled at close to full capacity, and it’s not necessarily the simplest decision in the world to start Sorokin for Game 1 in Boston. Pittsburgh had fewer than 10,000 fans in attendance for Sorokin’s starts last series, so Sorokin has never played in a banged-out NHL arena, let alone one in Boston, let alone during the second round of the playoffs. This time of year, that certainly matters.
Fortunately for the Islanders, they seemingly don’t have any conflicts with the situation.
“Unbelievable,” Trotz said of the dynamic between the two Russian goaltenders. “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.”MORE NEWS: NFL Will Legalize 'Pat Patriot' Throwback Helmet ... But Not Until 2022
If Trotz opts to start Sorokin, it seems as though Varlamov — despite a Vezina-caliber season — won’t be raising a stink. But in a playoff series that figures to be incredibly tight, where the margins of victory will be as narrow as possible, Trotz has to decide whether he wants to throw a rookie into a hostile environment or go back to the veteran who has struggled mightily thus far in the postseason.