Capitals Rookie Simeon Varlamov Helps Snatch Momentum From Rangers

The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir gets some Bruce Boudreau's thoughts on Simeon Varlamov's big night. Video by
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NEW YORK, April 21 -- For the first two games of the Eastern Conference first-round series between Washington and New York, the central theme was the Capitals' mounting frustration with a hot goaltender.

Now, though, it's the Rangers' turn to experience that feeling.

Since allowing in the Rangers' second shot in his NHL playoff debut on Saturday, Capitals rookie Simeon Varlamov has stopped 55 consecutive shots, including 33 in Monday's 4-0 Game 3 victory.

Just as important as the volume of saves made by Varlamov has been the timing of them. The Capitals did a much better job steering the Rangers' crafty forwards away from prime scoring locations, forcing them to take longer shots and from less direct angles. But when there were breakdowns and his team needed to be bailed out, Varlamov delivered what José Theodore did not in Game 1: clutch stops at critical moments.

Varlamov, like many of his teammates, opted not to practice on Tuesday and did not speak to reporters. But that didn't prevent the Russian from being the main topic of discussion a day after he became the fourth goalie to post a playoff shutout before his 21st birthday. (Harry Lumley, Patrick Roy and Carey Price are the others.) Varlamov's 0.50 goals against average and .982 save percentage led the league entering Tuesday's games, and when his regular season statistics are included, he's 4-0-0 with a 1.35 goals against average and a .954 save percentage in four starts on the road.

"He's been huge," defenseman Mike Green said. "I remember that save he made last night when he was down and out and he got his pad on it, then brought it right back into his glove. That's outstanding. Anytime you see that, you gather around as a group and you play for him if he's going to do that for the team."

Green was referring to a highlight stop Varlamov made on Markus Naslund late in the game with the Capitals guarding a 3-0 lead. Naslund went from his forehand to his backhand in the slot, luring Varlamov to the ice, then attempted to slip the puck past him. Varlamov, however, managed to kick his left pad out just in time, then smothered the puck with his glove. Naslund's reaction was one of disbelief.

The save pretty much snuffed out any hope the Rangers had of a comeback. It also underscored how much talent Varlamov posesses, while at the same time, illustrated how raw that talent remains. The save made Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior smile and cringe at the same time.

"I was critical of that play," Prior said. "He overplayed the initial situation and had to come up with that. But it's an example of a save that many goaltenders cannot make."

Varlamov has a come up with a handful of similarly spectacular stops since replacing Theodore after the Capitals dropped the series opener, 4-3. But as good as Varlamov has been, Coach Bruce Boudreau, the man who made the risky decision to switch goalies, scoffed at the notion that he's become as big a story line as Lundqvist.

"You can't put Varly in Lundqvist's class," he said. "It's two games versus a finalist for the Vezina [Trophy]. Hopefully someday, maybe three or four years down the road, Varly's in that situation. But right now he's a young goalie the Rangers haven't seen before, so they didn't know him. Lundqvist is an all-star. I like our guy, but he's not in that class yet."

It's also too early to know how Varlamov's performance in the playoffs will impact the goaltending situation heading into next season. But it could force General Manager George McPhee to make some difficult decisions this offseason. Injured backup Brent Johnson needs a contract and Theodore, the goalie who was signed to be the bridge to Varlamov, is entering the final year of a deal that will pay him $4.5 million. McPhee sidestepped questions about the offseason and instead focused on Varlamov and the Capitals' stable of young goalies, which also includes top-rated prospects Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.

"We think Neuvirth is every bit as good as Varlamov," McPhee said. "Varlamov has more experience playing against men the past couple of years. So he might be a touch ahead of Neuvirth in that regard. The good news is that this franchise is going to have really good goaltending going forward. But we want wins right now."

And that means sticking with Varlamov, who didn't appear fazed by the raucous Madison Square Garden crowd or bothered by Rangers forward Sean Avery, who took runs at him and even punched him with a gloved fist late. According to Boudreau and Varlamov's teammates, the goalie's demeanor was consistent with the calm and cool he exhibits in the dressing room.

"I don't know if he knows Avery well enough to know if that's his shtick," Boudreau said. When that happened, he took off his mask and he wasn't paying any attention to him. He's a focused young man."

Young, perhaps, being the key.

"A lot of these young guys coming into the NHL, they don't have the fear of failure like a 34-year-old, who if he goes in and does bad, [wonders] if this might be his last chance," Boudreau added. "Varly is going to get a chance for many years to come."

Capitals Notes: Varlamov's shutout was the team's 10th in the playoffs and second by a rookie in the postseason. . . . The Capitals have won 58.6 percent of the faceoffs in the series, led by Nicklas Backstrom's league-leading 66.7 percent (entering Tuesday's games). . . . With two goals and an assist in Game 3, Alexander Semin has 12 points in 10 career playoff games. . . . Rangers captain Chris Drury, who received 1:34 in ice time in the third period on Monday because of an undisclosed injury, skated on Tuesday but was limited in practice.

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