BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
The Islanders needed someone to give them a spark. It could have been anyone. It didn’t necessarily have to be a goal scorer on this Wednesday night.
They entered their Wednesday night game against the New York Rangers on a three-game losing streak. They knew this was a must-win game with a couple of Stanley Cup contenders in the Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche up next on the schedule followed by a Midwest trip through Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit next week.
It’s crazy to think Game 7 of an 82-game season is a must-win for a team, but that’s the scenario in a loaded Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division. The Islanders couldn’t fall further behind.
Enter Ilya Sorokin. He answered the challenge with a 41-save performance, including a 17-save first-period performance, in the Islanders’ 3-0 victory over the Rangers at UBS Arena. It was his first shutout performance of the season, his 11th in his career and his first-ever shutout against the Rangers. It was good enough for him to be the first star of the game.
The Blueshirts buzzed early and often in the first period, but it was Sorokin that made every stop. He set the tone in this Islanders’ win. He gave them a chance that set the stage for Kyle Palmieri to score the Islanders’ first goal in the second period and Josh Bailey and Palmieri to score in the third period.
It was the type of night the Islanders needed out of their goaltender. A night when he had to steal a game for his team to have a shot. A night where he had to step up. A night he had to show the way, especially against a hated neighbor rival. A night he had to calm a panicked team.
It was what the Islanders envisioned out of him when they drafted him in the third round of the 2014 draft. It was what they have been waiting for him when he honed his skills in the KHL in Russia. Now, they are reaping the benefits. He established himself as the Islanders starting goaltender. There’s no question he is the best goaltender in the NHL, and there’s no doubt he will be a Vezina Trophy candidate every year.
It’s been so long since the Islanders had a difference-maker goaltender.
The Islanders defense has done its part to keep the team in the game so far for all seven games. They can only do so much. Sometimes, a goaltender has to make the defense looks good. On this night, Sorokin returned the favor and then some.
If he doesn’t set the tone in that period, odds are good the Islanders would take another loss. This is a team that has not been good from come from behind. It’s already a struggle as it is for them to score, but to expect them to play from behind and win would have been too much to ask. They don’t have enough playmakers to do that, and they certainly don’t to go up against teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
Sorokin got his work two minutes into the game when Rangers recent callup Julien Gauthier had an opportunity to score by skating past Sebastian Aho and slicing through Scott Mayfield, but the Islanders goaltender denied him with a kick save.
Ryan Carpenter found space to shoot the puck just to be denied by Sorokin with 8:18 to go in the opening period.
Artemi Panarin dished out the puck to an open Alexis Lafreniere, but it was Sorokin that served as the human wall to stop Lafreniere with 6:15 to go, keeping the game scoreless in the first period.
Sorokin’s best save of the night came with 5:41 remaining until the first intermission. Kappo Kakko broke through on a 3-on-1 to get to the net, but the Islanders goaltender made a kick save. Chris Kreider saw the puck in the crease in that save sequence, but Sorokin was right there to prevent the goal from happening.
Sorokin finished the first period by making three outstanding stops on a Jimmy Vesey’s sequence shot.
By the second period, the Islanders defense made its impact by wearing the Rangers down. For most of the third period, the Rangers barely went to the Islanders zone to generate offense.
There’s no doubt Sorokin appreciated the help by making a point to praise the guys that played in front of him, but the Islanders defense carried this team often for the last few years, so they appreciated Sorokin making their job easy on this night.
On nights like this in what was an emotional game as it always is when both New York teams play each other, a great goaltender can make the difference between winning and losing.
The Islanders need more of that from Sorokin if they are going to be a playoff team this season. Looking at their roster with a lack of scorers and playmakers, he is their best player.
On Wednesday night, he played like it.
This writer can be reached on Twitter: @LeslieMonteiro6
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