Caps to Take It Slow With Young Goalie

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Washington Capitals caught a glimpse of what might be their future goaltender Saturday night. But even after Simeon Varlamov's 32-save effort, he'll apparently remain just that: the future.

When, or even if, Varlamov will get another start in his first NHL stint is unknown. But this much is certain: The 20-year-old gave Capitals fans something to look forward to with his memorable debut at Montreal's Bell Center, where he overcame his nerves, blocked out the raucous capacity crowd and was named the first star in Washington's 2-1 victory, its third in a row and fifth in six games.

The 2006 first-round draft pick became the youngest Russian goaltender to start an NHL game and the first goalie to win his NHL debut in Montreal since the New York Rangers' Hardy Astrom on Feb. 25, 1978.

"I've been impressed by him since I first saw him," goaltender Brent Johnson said. "He has explosive speed. I think that's probably his biggest attribute. He's like [New York Rangers goaltender] Henrik Lundqvist. He's quick side-to-side, and he's always in your face. He makes you put it by him, and he doesn't give up a lot of net."

Varlamov, who was recalled from the minor leagues Friday to replace the injured José Theodore, is expected to back up Johnson tonight at Nassau Coliseum against the New York Islanders, a team that has not won a game this month and is tied for last place in the Eastern Conference.

With more than a third of the season complete, inconsistent play in goal has been the chief concern for a team that has hopes of advancing deep into the playoffs. Johnson has exceeded expectations, posting a 9-4-2 record to go along with a 2.36 goals against average and .922 save percentage. But the 31-year-old has not been a full-time starter since the 2002-03 season (as a member of the St. Louis Blues), and there are questions about his durability. Theodore, meantime, has struggled to be consistent since signing a two-year, $9 million contract in July, and his .888 save percentage and 3.08 goals against average rank near the bottom of the league.

But Varlamov is not a threat to either veteran -- yet. The plan for now is to keep him in Washington until Theodore returns from his injury, then send him back to Hershey, Pa., where he ranks among the American Hockey League leaders with a 10-3-0 record, a .909 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average.

"He played really well [in Montreal], but we're going to have to keep working on his game like we do with all of our young goalies, continue to build structure and everything else," General Manager George McPhee said. "In terms of athleticism, he's off the charts, and in terms of competitiveness, he's as good as they come in that regard, too."

Said Coach Bruce Boudreau: "We think he has a really bright future. We'd like to see him play a little more."

Before Saturday's game, Varlamov was so focused, Boudreau said, he decided not to speak to him. That was not an option, however, for defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, who needed to establish some ground rules for goalie-defenseman communication with a new teammate who speaks limited English.

"I told him that if [the defenseman] wants him to play the puck, we would say 'Play' and if we wanted to him to leave it, we wouldn't say anything," Morrisonn said. "We did fine. There weren't any mix-ups. He's a goalie that makes you feel relaxed because his rebounds were placed in a great spot, and he's got a great glove hand, too. It was never in my mind that we've got a new goalie."

Varlamov reviewed the game on a laptop late Saturday night and said he was pleased with what he saw.

"I felt my movements were sharp," Varlamov said through Sergei Fedorov, who interpreted for him. "I was not nervous. I liked the way I played, on that high of a level. I gained a lot of confidence from that."

Varlamov said his experience playing for Russia in international competition and against grown men in the Continental Hockey League, where he led Yaroslavl to the finals last season, helped him prepare for the jump to North America this season. But none of that experience prepared him for his debut, which came in front of 21,000 chanting fans, in a city steeped in hockey heritage and broadcast around the world on "Hockey Night in Canada."

But in retrospect, Varlamov said, he wouldn't have had it any other way.

"After this game," he said. "I'm not afraid of anything."

Capitals Notes: Nicklas Backstrom is expected to play tonight after leaving Saturday's contest in the third period because of a migraine headache. Fedorov (ankle) and Tyler Sloan (foot) are not expected to suit up after missing practice yesterday. . . . Tomas Fleischmann (leg) and Eric Fehr (shoulder) returned to practice and traveled with the team, but their status remains unclear.

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