By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009
TAMPA, April 8 -- When the Washington Capitals selected Simeon Varlamov in the first round of the 2006 draft, the organization hoped the Russian goaltender would be NHL-ready in three to four years.
After five starts this season, Varlamov, whose 21st birthday is April 27, is clearly on schedule, if not slightly ahead of it.
With a dazzling 29-save performance Tuesday in Atlanta, he not only moved the Capitals within one point (won by them or lost by New Jersey) of clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but he also improved his record to 4-0-1 and bolstered his chances of being tapped as the team's No. 2 goaltender in the playoffs.
"Anytime you can stop [Atlanta all-star Ilya] Kovalchuk's slap shot from 35 or 40 feet out with your reflexes alone, that means he sees the puck and moves quick enough to play in this league." Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think he's ahead of schedule."
In his NHL debut in Montreal on Dec. 13, Varlamov showed the cat-quick reflexes and athleticism that made him a top prospect. But in his last three starts, it has been his self-assuredness and ability to intimidate shooters that has team officials more confident than ever in his ability to mature into a No. 1 goaltender.
"He's a goaltender that doesn't run and hide from prime scoring chances," goaltending coach Dave Prior said. "He has a presence in the goal. He wants to deal with the situation, not back off and try to figure out where the guy is going to shoot. He has a 'you have to beat me' attitude."
Getting beat isn't something Varlamov has experienced often as a Capital. He sports a 2.37 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, stopping 146 of the 159 shots he has faced. In his lone loss, 5-4 in overtime to Buffalo last week, three of the Sabres' goals deflected in off Capitals' sticks.
"I don't worry about my numbers," Varlamov said through teammate Viktor Kozlov, who often serves as an interpreter. "I just worry about preparing for every match, and trying to win every match."
But for all of Varlamov's impressive statistics, he remains a raw talent in need of refinement. He has a tendency to overplay pucks and come too far out of the net to challenge shooters, which can leave him vulnerable to crossing passes. He remains uncomfortable handling the puck -- he has been assessed six giveaways in his past three starts -- and his rebound control and positioning remain a "work in progress," according to Prior.
Prior also has been working with Varlamov on dialing back his explosiveness in an effort to keep him off injured reserve. The goalie missed several weeks because of groin and knee injuries this season. Those injuries have limited him to just 27 games with the minor league Hershey Bears and six in Washington.
"He's going to calm down," Prior said. "Even at [the] American [Hockey] League level, the game is a good bit faster than in Russia. He has a spring-loaded style. I think you'll see a little less attack in his game, and that will make him less vulnerable to hurting himself."
Varlamov is adjusting off the ice, too. His comprehension of English has improved, but he still isn't confident enough to do interviews with American reporters. The language barrier also presents challenges in the locker room and on the rink. Boudreau and his coaches rely on other Russian players to interpret, and there have been a few mix-ups during games between Varlamov and his defensemen. One of those miscommunications led to a turnover against the Thrashers.
"In the first month I studied with a teacher, but I preferred just learning from speaking with the boys," Varlamov said. "When you're the only Russian on the team, you have to learn to speak English fast because you have to communicate. Nobody can help you."
While the Capitals have not decided who will be José Theodore's backup in the playoffs -- Varlamov or Brent Johnson, who is still recovering from hip surgery and might not be ready for another two weeks -- Boudreau said he would not hesitate to play Varlamov in a playoff game if the situation called for it.
"If that [happened] I wouldn't say, 'Oh poor Varly is in net' " Boudreau said. "We would run with him and give him the confidence to do the job."
Capitals Notes: Left wing Donald Brashear (sprained knee) is questionable for the final two games of the regular season, Boudreau said. . . . Defenseman Tom Poti might take a second consecutive game off to rest his nagging groin muscle strain. With the playoffs looming next week, Boudreau gave his players the day off to rest and relax.