Which goaltenders stood out the most during the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
When play was halted back in early March due to the novel coronavirus virus and outbreak, there was a very high chance that the hockey season would not continue. But after five long months, teams returned to play meaningful hockey in an expanded Stanley Cup Playoffs format with 24 teams.
While these players are athletes and did what they could to continue to stay in form if the season resumed, nothing mimics game-like situations, no matter the drill. You know what they say? Defense wins championships. The ultimate defensive position in the sport of hockey is the man between the pipes.
That was the one position I was most concerned about with struggling to handle the months away from the game. After a grueling season facing shot after shot, goaltenders that were playing at the top of their game now had to shake off the rust, which for some netminders could take longer than others. And for others, this break could help a struggling goaltender get back to the basics and rewrite a struggling season when it mattered the most.
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We know the top netminders in this league, with names like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, and Tuukka Rask coming to mind.
But this postseason, we saw many goaltenders who do not garner the attention like these stars turn heads this postseason run. Let’s look at the goalies who stood out the most.
For the New York Islanders, a mediocre regular season did not leave many people hopeful of a deep playoff run. Obviously, the fans of this team knew just how good they could be when healthy, which they finally were when play resumed on August 1st.
One major concern for this team when the playoffs began was their offensive woes, as well as the play of Semyon Varlamov, the first-year Islander who had not played a postseason game since 2014.
After the longest postseason run since 1993, the Islanders’ dreams of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals came two games short, as they were defeated by the Tampa Bay Lightning four games to two in the Eastern Conference Finals.
While their offense did come alive this postseason, the play of Varlamov stole the show and was the biggest reason a cup appearance was even in reach.
When the regular season came to a stop, Varlamov had been the go-to guy for head coach Barry Trotz, as Thomas Greiss had struggled mightily in the second half. Varlamov did his job in his first year on the island, posting a .914 SV% and a 2.62 GAA in 45 games.
He was able to improve his statistics from a year prior, his last year in Colorado, as he faced over 200 fewer shots which helped him get comfortable and led to more consistent play. In the playoffs, the 32-year old netminder was outstanding, coming through in the biggest of moments to help his team pick up wins. And in the losses, he gave his team a fighting chance.
In 20 games played this postseason, Varlamov posted a .921 SV% with a 2.14 GAA, both career-bests for him in postseason play. Here is his play broken down by series.
Opp Record Save % GAA SV SA
Vs. FLA (3-1) .929% 1.75 96 103
Vs. WSH (4-1) .935% 1.60 116 124
Vs. PHI (2-2) .899% 1.86 116 129
Vs. TBL (2-3) .921% 2.67 187 203
His best stretch this postseason was from Game 5 against the Washington Capitals until 1:57 of Game 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Over that span, Varlamov set an Islanders franchise record for the most minutes of shutout hockey in the postseason. He passed the iconic Billy Smith (136:59), setting the new franchise record of 138:17 without allowing a goal.
While there were a handful of key saves by Varlamov throughout the entirety of the Islander playoff run, these two saves in overtime of Game 3 against the Capitals were the definition of clutch. This sequence of saves gave Mat Barzal the opportunity to win the game and take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
Looking back to his statistics above, we see that the Flyers gave him such trouble. After his shutout streak came to a close, he struggled quite a bit to get back to form, leading to Greiss getting the start for Game 7, a 4-0 victory.
Despite the series against the Lightning ending in six games, Varlamov was pounded with shots game in and game out, doing all he could to help the Islanders survive the multitude of pushes by this Lightning team. He was the sole reason that series did not end in a four-game sweep because the Lightning controlled the majority of play in each game.
For the Islanders, Varlamov showed that he could be a strong netminder for this team when it truly mattered and that he had much more left in the tank. With potential superstar Ilya Sorokin finally in America, many expect him to be the bonafide starter for the next 10 plus years.
But Varlamov showed that he can play a critical role in the development of his fellow Russian netminder. While his days as a starter at the NHL level are surely numbered, specifically on this team, he showcased to his team and to the league that he still has what it takes to be a dynamic player in the NHL.