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Islanders See Goalie Rotation as a 'Strength'

Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov have thrived under even split to start season

by Cory Wright WrightsWay /

Compared to the rest of the NHL, the New York Islanders strict two-goalie rotation may seem unusual. 

The Islanders have alternated goalie starts in all 31 games to start the season, which is both a franchise record and the longest such streak in the league since the 2006-07 San Jose Sharks rotated Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala for the first 36 games. With Thomas Greiss expected to start on Tuesday vs Nashville, the streak should reach 32 games. 

Standing out from the crowd doesn't bother Barry Trotz, especially when the Islanders boast a 22-7-2 record in those 31 games. As far as the coach is concerned, as long as both Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov continue to play at a high level, he's more than content to rotate both in. 

"Right now I look at the stats and tell me who I should decide on? They are virtually identical and at a high level," Trotz said of his two goalies. "That's a strength of the New York Islanders. If it's someone else's weakness, too bad for them. We're good with it."

A quick look at the stats. Greiss is 11-4-0 with a 2.16 GAA and a .932 SV%, while Varlamov is 11-3-2 with a 2.24 GAA and a .928 SV% and one shutout. Both rank in the top-nine in save percentage (Greiss is fifth, Varlamov is tied for ninth) and are top-five in goals-against average. Greiss is fourth in that category, while Varlamov is tied for fifth with Tuukka Rask. 

The arrangement seems to be working for both goalies, who are sharing the load instead of shouldering it. 

"We're both playing well and it gives us a decent amount of rest and time to work with the goalie coaches and stay sharp that way," Greiss said. "We play enough games back and forth. It's been working. It's tough to put a finger on it, but as long as we keep winning games, that's the most important thing."

For Greiss, it was already customary after splitting last season with Robin Lehner and winning the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against. Varlamov, who signed a four-year deal with the Isles over the summer, has quickly seen the positives, as the split has the 31-year-old feeling fresh for every start. 

"I feel good about it. When you play every other game, you feel fresh mentally and physically," Varlamov said. "When you play so many games in a row and then in some games you feel tired and exhausted and you have to get through that. When you rotate goalies, you can always feel fresh."

Varlamov has been especially good of late, winning his last four starts, stopping 125-of-131 shots (.954 SV%) over that span. That doesn't include Varlamov's 30-save relief effort on Nov. 30 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, when he entered the game cold in the first period after Greiss' dizzy spell. If there were ever a game that epitomized the two goalies working together, that's it. 

Video: NYI@CBJ: Greiss reaches back to prevent a goal

Trotz said he's seen growth from Varlamov over the past three months after working with Islanders Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn and Goaltending Coach Piero Greco. 

"He's a real, true pro and he's made adjustments," Trotz said. "You can see it in the way he's moving now. He's always been very athletic, very explosive, but there's times now where he's a little more patient and waits for things to happen. I just think he's settled in quite well, a few things. He's not as impatient."

"I think that's all settling in. I know when you come to a new club you want to impress so hard that maybe you become a little impatient and it probably works against you," Trotz added. "He's settled in with the group really well and I think the way he plays for us, he's getting used to the way we play in front of him. He's been a really nice fit."

Ask the goalies and they're quick to pass along the praise to the team, as well. 

"They've been playing outstanding in front of me and Greisser and we both appreciate it what this team is capable of doing defensively," Varlamov said. The team is working really, really hard. I never give myself credit, I'd give credit to this team."

Video: NYI@BUF: Varlamov keeps Sabres at bay with shutout

As for Greiss, who stopped 32-of-33 shots in a 3-1 win over Florida on Thursday, Trotz said the rotation also helps the 33-year-old stay fresh. Statistically, Greiss' two best seasons with the Islanders (2015-16 and 2018-19) came in years where he appeared in 41 and 43 games, respectively. Trotz theorizes that it's not the physicality of playing upwards of that many - Braden Holtby started 72 games for Trotz in 2014-15 - but the mental grind. 

"I think going with have two people and sharing the load a little bit, they can really be sharp on their game," Trotz said. "Just like anything, goaltending is confidence. Goaltending is more mental probably than physical. They're in great shape and are flexible, but the mental part, you have to play all 60 minutes of a hockey game, where a lot of times a player doesn't have to. A goalie for the most part has to. So it's more of a mental grind for them than a physical game."

The record for goalie rotations belongs to the 1990-91 New York Rangers, who alternated starts for John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter for the first 76 games to start a season. Trotz hasn't committed to this setup for an entire year, nor has he picked a date for when the merry go round comes to a stop. Instead, he said he'll just let Greiss and Varlamov determine that with their play. As of today, the rotation seems to be working well for both goalies and the Isles as a whole. 

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