Varlamov, Isles blank Flyers in best-of-seven opener
Aim for 2-0 series lead Wednesday afternoon
Defense wins championships.
And so do red-hot goaltenders.
The New York Islanders are featuring both on their path toward the Long Island/Brooklyn-based franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1983.
Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves en route to his second straight playoff shutout as the Islanders blanked the Philadelphia Flyers 4-0 Monday in the opening game of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals at the NHL’s bubble site in Toronto.
“We play well defensively, the guys played unbelievable again today in front of me,” Varlamov said in his first appearance since closing out the Washington Capitals in the opening round with a 21-save, 4-0 shutout last Thursday.
“It feels good to get back-to-back shutouts, but at this point, it’s not about shutouts,” he added. “It’s playoff hockey, so for me the most important thing is to get the win and get ready for the next game. I’m not really focusing on it right now, of course I am excited about it, I’m not going to lie, but it is what it is.”
Varlamov boasts a gaudy 8-2 record with a 1.50 goals-against average in 10 starts since the Isles showed up in Toronto last month on the outside looking in at a potential playoff spot.
He backstopped New York past Florida in four games in the qualifying round and led the Isles to a five-game ouster of Washington in the best-of-seven East quarterfinals.
The 32-year-old Russian, who signed a four-year free-agent pact with the Isles last summer, has a sparkling .941 save percentage and a pair of shutouts during this postseason, and will be back between the pipes for Game 2 vs. Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m.
“He’s playing fantastic,” veteran defenseman Andy Greene said of Varlamov after providing the goalie with all the offense he’d need in Monday’s opener, lighting the lamp at 6:06 of the first period with his first playoff goal since April 16, 2010.
“[Varlamov’s] making the hard saves look easy and in our breakdowns, we know he’s there for us.”
And his defense has been there for him as well.
The Isles have already matched a franchise record in the bubble by yielding 30 shots or less in nine consecutive games.
They’ve allowed two goals or fewer in all but two of their first 10 games in Toronto, frustrating opponents by blocking shots and clearing the defensive zone in front of Varlamov, who will ride a 136-minute, 20-second shutout streak into Game 2.
“We just tried to go into this game and establish our game,” Isles head coach Barry Trotz said after New York beat Philadelphia for the fourth time in as many meetings this season.
“Get to our game as quick as possible and see what their game is about.”
The top-seeded Flyers stayed within one score through the first 40 minutes, outshooting the Isles 15-7 in the second period, but New York finally pulled away for good in the third.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau made it 2-0 at 2:54 of the period, team captain Anders Lee struck six minutes later and Devon Toews sealed the deal on an unassisted tally with 7:49 remaining.
“The second period we kind of got away from our game a little bit, and they took it to us,” Greene admitted. “We saw how the first and third periods went and that’s more of what we need out of our game.”
“We’re playing the right way as much as possible and that leads to our success,” added Lee.
Carter Hart made 26 saves for Philadelphia, which knocked off Montreal in six games in the opening round.
“This group has always found a way to respond and we’ll respond Wednesday,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault insisted.
Three wins away from their first trip to the conference finals since 1993, Varlamov and the Isles aren’t getting caught up in their impressive start to these Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We know how important the first game of each series is,” said Varlamov, who improved to 5-0 for his career playoff openers.
“It’s important to win the first one and then have a good start and we did that again today. It’s going to be a long series. … We’ll have to move on from this game and get ready for the next one.”
Isle Have Another: Game 3 is scheduled for Thursday night at 7 p.m., the first of two potential back-to-backs in this series as Games 5 and 6, if necessary, are slated to be played on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. … Greene, acquired at the trade deadline, became just the 10th player in NHL history to go at least a decade between playoff goals. The 37-year-old blueliner and Pageau, who was also picked up by general manager Lou Lamoriello at the deadline, have been instrumental in the Isles’ playoff drive thus far. … Cal Clutterbuck, who sat out last week’s Game 5 clincher against the Capitals with an undisclosed injury, had one shot on goal and two hits in 13 1/2 minutes of ice time vs. Philadelphia in Game 1.
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