Nylander's Third-Period Goal Leads Washington Capitals to 2-1 Victory Over Montreal Canadiens

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

MONTREAL, Dec. 13 -- There are so many reasons why Bell Center was not the best place for a young goaltender to make his NHL debut -- the big crowd, the incessant cheering, the pressure of playing in a city with so much hockey history.

But none of it fazed Simeon Varlamov.

One day after being recalled from the minor leagues as an injury replacement, Varlamov stopped 32 shots to lift the Washington Capitals to a 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in a physical game that ended with three players in the trainer's room nursing injuries.

"That was pretty good, eh?" said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team has won three in a row and five of six. "Nerves of steel. He rose to the occasion. It was really cool."

But as his teammates whooped and hollered, and dance music blared from the speakers in the visitors' locker room, Varlamov sat alone in his locker stall, wiping shaving cream from his eyes. Alex Ovechkin had just reminded him of his status on the team.

"It was his first game, first win," Ovechkin said when asked why he shoved a shaving cream pie in his countryman's face. "He's a tremendous player. I am so happy for him to get his first win -- in Montreal especially."

Varlamov, indeed, was a hero on this night. But the Capitals needed some help from another unlikely source to ensure they earned both standings points.

Jaroslav Halak (24 saves) had been solid in the Montreal net. But he was helpless to stop Michael Nylander's fluky goal -- the veteran center's first goal in 26 games -- with 2 minutes 32 seconds remaining.

Nylander was in front of the net when Alexandre Giroux's shot hit him on the side and dropped in his skates. Without hesitation, he backhanded the puck through Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik's legs and off Halak's skate for the winner.

"I knew it was going to come sooner or later -- and it came at a good point," Nylander said.

The Capitals' win was big for a team that has struggled on the road this season. But it also ended without three players on the bench: Sergei Fedorov and Tyler Sloan did not return for the third period because of injuries, and Nicklas Backstrom left midway through the third with a migraine headache.

There was no immediate update on the nature or severity of the injuries to Fedorov or Sloan, and with the team off Sunday, there may not be any news until Monday's practice.

The Capitals overcame a short bench, and penalty problems -- they were whistled for eight infractions -- largely because of Varlamov's play in net. They were also helped by Montreal's struggling power play, which went 0 for 8.

"This is big for me, because it was tough for me to concentrate before the game," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "Now I won my first game in Russia and I won my first game in Washington."

The first 24 hours of Varlamov's NHL career have been a blur. On Friday, Varlamov was in Houston with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears when he received a phone call from Ovechkin, who had some intriguing news: José Theodore was hurt. Less than an hour later, a team official called with the news Varlamov had been waiting to hear: The goalie was on his way to the NHL.

Varlamov hopped on the next flight to Washington, arrived midway through the first period of Friday's 5-1 win over Ottawa, then got more unexpected news when he arrived at the rink Saturday morning: Boudreau named him the starter over Brent Johnson, who was nursing a sore hip.

Varlamov, who was 10-3-0 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in Hershey, had played in big games before -- but the raucous atmosphere in Montreal can overwhelm even the calmest players.

Playing before a crowd of 21,273, he didn't let it shake him.

In a fast and physical first period, the Capitals came out strong and Varlamov stopped all six shots he faced. Backstrom put the Capitals ahead on the power play, notching his fifth goal in seven games at 10:19. After Ovechkin unloaded a shot from the point, Backstrom stopped the rebound, then lifted the puck over Halak.

Varlamov had to be good in the second period as his teammates kept filing into the penalty box. The Capitals took four penalties, including Ovechkin's double minor high-sticking infraction.

On the power play alone, the Canadiens fired six shots on Varlamov. The unflappable youngster was there to meet each attempt with a pad, stick or glove.

Varlamov, however, yielded his first goal at 15:25 of the second as the teams skated four per side. Patrice Brisebois took a pass from Alex Tanguay and rifled a shot from the circle over Varlamov's glove, tying the game at 1.

Varlamov stopped all 14 shots he faced in the third period to clinch the win, including two attempts from Tanguay, one a breakaway and the other a shot from point blank range.

"To be composed in this building, in his first NHL start, it was awesome to see," Capitals center Brooks Laich said of Varlamov.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company