One could have questioned the New York Islanders’ short and long-term plans right from the get-go. And they certainly were, perhaps.
The “concerns,” of course, revolved around the team’s significant strength in their goaltending tandem. More specifically, their veteran goaltending tandem.
This, of course, became a term of the past after the Islanders let Thomas Greiss walk in free agency after the 2019-20 season. Sure, they still had Semyon Varlamov to spearhead their presence in front of the net, but who could back him up the way Greiss could have?
Enter Ilya Sorokin.
Well, maybe exit Sorokin, too. Although the upside certainly was there during his 244-game stint in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the million-dollar question had to be asked – could Sorokin hold his own when Varlamov needed a day or three?
Million-dollar question asked, and million-dollar question answered.
Well, partially. In 22 regular season games played (21 GS), the 25-year-old rookie went 13-6-3 and compiled a 2.17 Goals Against Average (GAA) and .918 Save Percentage (Sv%) with three shutouts.
This, however, was during the regular season, and while the production certainly accounted toward New York’s clinching a postseason berth, the question of whether the stinginess between the pipes would translate to the Stanley Cup Playoffs was something different entirely.
Especially against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Jeff Carter and a slew of other high-profile scorers, one could have easily wondered how Sorokin would deal with the pressure. Would New York’s plans backfire?
Well, if Sorokin’s performance against the Steel City was indication, no, it has not. In four games played (four GS) against Pittsburgh, Sorokin amassed a 1.95 GAA, .943 Sv% and picked up all four of New York’s wins to clinch the series against the Penguins (Varlamov, meanwhile, went 0-2-0 with a 3.61 GAA and .903 Sv%). In fact, Sorokin is one of only eight rookie goaltenders dating back to 1918 to pick up four wins within his first four Stanley Cup Playoff starts and maintain a GAA of 2.00 or less.
The numbers certainly speak for themselves, but how exactly did Sorokin manage to become the prime goaltending topic of discussion through the early portion of the 2021 postseason?
Well, let’s look into it, shall we?
With any goaltender, it is all about knowing the bubble and the range in which you can comfortably venture outside of the crease. This is especially the case for a rookie goaltender, who might become too adventurous in travelling outside the crease during a line change or back-check by his team’s defense. While veteran goaltenders might become riskier in expanding their overall range, Sorokin kept himself tight inside the blue paint, as seen here.
Pittsburgh almost immediately starts up their play by controlling the puck at the near point before Sidney Crosby attempts to tap in a puck through heavy short-side traffic. Sorokin, however, remains a magnet and keeps the puck in his possession even when the play pushed him away from the net. Keep in mind this play was Sorokin’s first shot attempt against him and was on the road. The second attempt saw similar success for Sorokin, who hugged the near-side when the action was heading toward him.
Maintaining steady poise while staying fluid quickly became the name of the game, as Pittsburgh was notorious for taking advantage of opponents on breakaways. Here, Kasperi Kapanen utilizes his speed to create a brief breakaway. While Kapanen was looking to beat the rookie with a quick wrist-shot to the five-hole, Sorokin maintained his presence inside the crease to get the stop with the right pad on his blocking side.
The breakaways, and with it, the odd-man rushes, became Pittsburgh’s bread-and-butter as the series progressed. Instead of going with velocity, the Penguins instead decided to go with a quick tap-in on Sorokin’s off-side. Note how Sorokin not only veers back to where the puck is intended to go, but also how he moves his right pad to get the deflection.
Attempting to out-finesse the Russian native became the goal for the Penguins, and perhaps their biggest chance came here, when Kapanen slid through the slot and attempted to fake Sorokin into going where he would not. Again, note the footwork, this time regarding his left pad as opposed to his right.
Then, of course, came the traditional breakaway with the well-patented backhander that has plagued goaltender’s thoughts for generations.
Well, maybe not for Sorokin, even though he went head-to-head with someone by the name of Evgeni Malkin.
Preventing the high-velocity shots from finding the back of the net is certainly an area of expertise for many goalies out there, and while Sorokin has shown the potential to do this consistently, he has attempted to master a much more difficult skill in stopping the shots right in front of him. If the crease collapses around him, it is no biggie. Nor is it an issue if a couple breakaways here and there occur.
Although he might be a rookie, Sorokin has been proving the critics wrong. Many might have tabbed him as a go-to goalie in several seasons, but now? Well, he has certainly become one, and his prowess in the postseason has only shown that.
Revamping New York’s goaltending duo might have been seen as a problem to some pundits. While New York certainly did revamp it, they did it with a younger option with high upside right from the get-go.
And it has worked.
Concerns? Don’t worry about it.