The veteran goaltender made 30 saves to outplay Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the Islanders got goals from Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock to hold off defending champion Tampa Bay 2-1 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semifinals.
The Lightning lost a series opener for the first time this postseason. It's also the first series deficit they've faced since dropping Game 1 of last year's Cup final to the Dallas Stars.
"In our minds Varly is one of the best goalies in the league. When there is a chance against him he’s been there all year for us,” New York's Jordan Eberle said, adding the Islanders are building confidence by the victory.
“I think if you look at the way the playoffs have gone for us, our game has continued to get better and that’s what you want to see. We’re in the final four, so you should have confidence. This is obviously a good start for us, but we know they are going to come out pushing the next game.”
Varlamov won his fourth straight playoff start, joining teammate Ilya Sorokin as only the third pair of goaltenders from the same team to have personal winning streaks of at least four games in a single postseason.
Sorokin won four in a row during New York’s first-round victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varlamov won four games in the second round, including the final three as the Islanders rallied to eliminate the Boston Bruins.
“Goaltending is all about timely saves. We’ve got two that have done that for us," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “They have done it all year.”
Pulock sent a shot past the Vezina Trophy finalist from just inside the blue line for a two-goal lead at 5:36 of the third.
The best-of-seven series, which continues in Tampa Tuesday night, is a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference final won by the Lightning in six games.
Most of the players are the same, including Varlamov and Vasilevskiy, and the Lightning are very familiar with Trotz, who has faced them at this stage of the playoffs three of the past four seasons.
“It’s frustrating to lose. ... But this team is no different than the team we basically played in the bubble,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We just made too many mistakes, unforced errors. Managing the puck is a big thing against this team.”
The Islanders helped themselves by staying out the penalty box for most the afternoon, limiting the Lightning to just two power-play opportunities — the last coming with 1:38 remaining and producing Tampa Bay’s only goal.
With Vasilevskiy on the bench, the Lightning who already had six skaters on the ice when New York's Brock Nelson drew a penalty for high-sticking, took advantage on 6-on-4 to get on the board with Braden Point’s ninth goal this postseason with 53 seconds to go.
“We knew they were going to come out pretty hard, they always do at home," Varlamov said, adding a strong start defensively was crucial. "We didn’t give up stupid penalties. ... They only had two power plays.”
The Islanders are the first team since the 1980 Philadelphia Flyers (Phil Myre, Pete Peeters) to have two goaltenders with win streaks of at least four games in the same playoff year. The Bruins (Eddie Johnston, Gerry Cheevers) were the first team in 1972.
“We dropped a few last year in the playoffs as well, including in the Final. We’re fine in this position," Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos said.
"It’s not ideal, but they did what we have done to teams so far and get one on the road so far, so we have to get one in front of our fans and we’ll take it from there,” the Lightning captain added. “There’s no panic in the room. That’s a really good team over there. Sometimes they have a say, and they played really well. We’ll make some adjustments and come back even hungrier.”
Teams taking a 1-0 lead in conference finals/semifinals have an all-time series record of 127-55.
HOME ICE ADVANTAGE
The Lightning began a series at home for the first time this postseason. Capacity at Amalie Arena was set at 14,800, up from 13,500 in the second round against Carolina. Starting on the road has hardly been a hindrance for the defending champs, who won Games 1 and 2 away from home against the Florida Panthers, as well as the Hurricanes.