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Flames 5, Islanders 2: Only surprise is Varlamov out in COVID Protocol

A forced late change to the starting goalie disrupted things, but this result had to be the odds-on expectation.

New York Islanders v Calgary Flames
A little help here? Anyone?
Photo by Terence Leung/2022 NHLI

The New York Islanders walked into a daunting challenge, facing the much tougher Alberta team on the second half of a back-to-back swing through the province, and they did nothing to dispel the impression they’ve conveyed all season: The 2021-22 edition just doesn’t have it.

The Islanders lost, 5-2, in a game that they never looked like they could really win unless things broke just right. Which is how even their best moments against playoff-bound teams have gone this year. They hung in there, sure, but the Flames have a Pacific lead-worthy record for a reason and the Isles are below even NHL .500 for a reason.

On the social and punditry webs afterward, there was some dramatic talk of the season being over. But hasn’t it been “over, short of a miracle” for a while? It would take such a historic run and confluence of luck-bearing factors for them to overcome their deep hole (COVID-influenced, injury-influenced, but also roster self-inflicted) and the large lead held by the playoff/wild-card holding teams, and that’s been the case for a while now.

In many seasons like this, second half entertainment comes from seeing what promise might be held in prospects who are called up. But the pipeline is very thin right now, and that’s not really the current regime’s approach. So I’ll mostly be holding my breath that Lou Lamoriello doesn’t do something rash to try to save the season and make an unlikely run. This isn’t the year, and some smart, bold moves will be needed to make sure the same won’t be said for 2022-23.

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Varlamov Out in COVID Protocol

The big story going into the game was Ilya Sorokin starting both ends of a road back-to-back, and why: Semyon Varlamov, the presumed starter who was out there for warmups and even listed on the roster, was pulled just before game time for a positive COVID test.

Almost the entire Isles lineup and coaching staff has been in protocol at some point this season except the goalies, so this felt like it was just a matter of time, and when. I thought the NHL easing up on testing might have allowed the goalies to escape, but cross-border travel involves more testing, and...

Pending clarity on these results, Varlamov may be required to quarantine in Canada while the Isles have games back in the U.S. on Tuesday and Thursday.

First Period: Free-wheeling, you might say

For two teams with a disciplined defense-first focus, there were a surprising amount of Grade A chances in the first period. The Islanders had at least three of them before anyone got on the board, but it was the Flames who scored first at 9:58.

The wanderlust-inspired Rasmus Andersson circled the Isles zone, Blake Comeau Classic-style, and fed big Adam Ruzicka (no relation to Vladimir) in front. Sorokin moved to his left in anticipation of a cross-crease shot, but Ruzicka shot high near side to make it 1-0.

The Isles had a couple of power play opportunities, and both looked functional, but the second one actually paid off with a tying goal. Some really good work to keep it in led to Mathew Barzal having enough space to carry down below the goal line before lofting a pass back to Noah Dobson at the point. Dobson’s shot may have hit a Flame on its way to the net, but otherwise benefited from screens by Anders Lee and J-G Pageau.

That tied it at 1-1 at 17:07 and it looked like the Isles would be able to start the second period with a fresh score.

Alas. Just 61 seconds later, the Flames worked the puck through the Isles zone on the rush, and Chris Tanev was fed at the top of the high slot for an open look. Zach Parise did his best to stop, change directions, and try to disrupt the shot. Instead, his stick provided a critical deflection that helped the shot go up while Sorokin was anticipating its initial downward trajectory. It’s a shot from a distance Sorokin normally stops, but it’s hard to instruct Parise to do anything different there.

That made it 2-1 with less than two minutes left, and that’s how things remained for the next 17 minutes.

Second Period: Sleepy

The middle period was more of the monotonous slog you’d expect from these teams when they are in Peak Smother form, though that didn’t appear to be so much from intelligent defense as it was from general lack of inspiration. Neither team mounted much counterattack from their discipline, and total shots on target were a meager 8-4.

Ross Johnston attempted to inject life when he went hard after Erik Gudbranson on the forecheck, and invited the big defenseman to stay for a fight. Gudbranson obliged, and both landed some blows in an extended fight that drew blood from both.

That didn’t really change anything noticeably. But just when it looked like the period would be a complete non-event, the teams traded goals late.

First, Andrew Mangiapane finished another nice play from Ruzicka, redirecting a pass to the top of the crease to make it 3-1 with 4:28 left. Mangiapane took an inadvertent elbow to the face for his net-front troubles from Ryan Pulock, who vacated to approach Ruzicka, leaving Mangiapane alone and tardily covered by Andy Greene.

A minute later, the Isles nearly let the Flames completely put the game away with a wide-open look from the slot, but “The Other” Oliver Kylington (and evidently it’s pronounced “Czuczman”) hit the post. The Islanders then went the other way, with “The Real” Oliver Wahlstrom rushing down the right wing, getting checked off the puck, but keeping the pressure on to sustain the forecheck.

Zach Parise then won the continued battle behind the net and found J-G Pageau in the low slot, where he brought the Isles back within one just 1:18 after the Flames’ insurance goal.

Then the Isles went back on the power play with just over two minutes left, after Blake Coleman can-opened Cal Clutterbuck inside the blueline. But it was a sloppy, discombobulated effort that wasted a great opportunity to tie the game heading into the second intermission.

Third Period: Shut down

The Islanders got nothing going in the third period. And eight minutes in, the Flames basically put the game away with an insurance goal.

The Flames worked the puck from behind the net, Gudbranson got a shot on through traffic, it went off the post, off Sorokin, and fluttered over the line. The referee standing behind the net six feet away from the puck called play dead and “no goal.” But the MSG announcers and the rest of us watching from thousands of miles away deduced that puck was probably in.

It took a brief review to overturn the call on the ice. 4-2 Flames, and game essentially over.

Sorokin still made one of his awesome, stretching saves (on Mikael Backlund after stopping Coleman’s initial shot) with six minutes left. So that was cool, though it was one of those highlight saves that you wish were deployed in a game-changing rather than face-saving situation.

And now, I will exhibit as much effort and cohesion in describing the Flames’ fifth goal as the Islanders did in defending it: ...

That one (from Elias Lindholm) made it 5-2 with 4:47 left, and that’s how the game finished.

Up Next

The Islanders cross the border and come homeward before finishing this road stretch in Buffalo on Tuesday. The Sabres have three fewer wins.