By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Two weeks ago, a reporter said, "Hello, Simeon," to Simeon Varlamov, who was then merely the Capitals' 20-year-old backup goaltender, rather than the most desperately important man in Washington for those with ice on the brain.
"That's not my name," Varlamov said in perfect English. He politely but firmly explained that his name should be pronounced "Sem-yon." That's what sometimes happens when you switch from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to ours.
Then, this week, the Caps' own announcers learned that they, like everybody else, had been pronouncing Varlamov's last name incorrectly, too. How can you get both of this guy's names wrong? After his 4-0 shutout victory over the Rangers last night in a win-or-go-home Game 5, he may soon be the Goalie Who Saved the Season.
It's not Var-la-MOV. It's Var-lam-ov, with the "lam" pronounced to rhyme with "bomb."
And, yes, Varlamov, who was put in goal to replace veteran José Theodore after a 4-3 Caps defeat in Game 1, has indeed been da bomb. His world is moving with explosive speed. Varlamov will celebrate his 21st birthday on Monday, which -- if the Caps survive their trip to New York for tomorrow's Game 6 -- would be the day before a climactic Game 7 at Verizon Center.
If that sequence transpires, then Varlamov may be the first Russian player ever to turn 21 during an NHL season and not have even a single drop of vodka to celebrate.
"Just creeping up on 21, he's a pretty special player," the Caps' Brian Pothier said. "He certainly came along at the right time."
"In practice, shooting on him, he's tremendous," high-scoring defenseman Mike Green said. "He's so quick and so calm. It's tough to find a hole on him. Even when the puck comes through two or three players, he still seems to see it and react to it. He's been incredible for us."
And he's happy. As he skated off the ice, he tossed the puck -- a memento of his second shutout in the span of three games -- "to my girlfriend." Of course, he's also pleased to hear a recognizable version of his own name. "They started to pronounce my last name correctly after the last game," he said through an interpreter. "They made some corrections and I was very glad to hear that."
If Varlamov is a mystery to the Rangers, who seem to have no clue to his tendencies or (since they presumably exist) his flaws, they shouldn't feel bad. He's a mystery to his own coach, Bruce Boudreau, who put this series on his shoulders, yet barely speaks to him. "I don't want to get in his head," Boudreau said. "I don't want to talk to him and screw him up somehow."
Even before this crucial but lopsided Game 5 victory, it was Varlamov, not the famous Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, who was the (slightly) hotter goalie. Sem-yon Var-lam-ov (is everybody practicing along at home?) actually had a higher save percentage, .962 to .942 and had allowed fewer goals per game, 1.01 to 2.00.
Now? Why good heavens, it's not even close. Varlamov's stats are .969 and 0.76 to Lundqvist's .926 and 2.57. The goalie they call "the King" in New York let in goals barely worthy of a peon on this all-Caps all-the-time night. In what may have been the pivotal instant in this game, Lundqvist allowed one of the softest goals you'll ever see, letting in a medium-speed wrist shot by Matt Bradley from the tightest of short-side angles. Somehow, when Lundqvist should have had every available inch of the goal blocked -- easily -- with some part of his body, he allowed the puck to squeeze through an unprotected crack. You could almost hear the air leave the Rangers' balloon.
How bad is such a goal? It would be like an NFL quarterback not knowing where the back line of the end zone was and stepping out of bounds for a gift safety. Or a first baseman catching a routine throw to first, but leaving his foot two inches off the base.
"Every great goalie, every now and again, makes a mistake," Boudreau said. "When I saw that goal, I thought, 'Uh oh, he's going to be great the next game.' Because the great ones usually bounce back."
But then Boudreau sees (motivational) black cats everywhere. Should his team, which has outscored the Rangers 9-3 since Varlamov took over, get too confident, the coach recalled: "This game made me think of the '60 World Series. The Yankees won three games by about 10 runs each and the Pirates won four games by one run each."
By the end of the second period, a spectacular goal by Alex Ovechkin -- faking one defender, passing to himself through the legs of another, then scoring backhanded while almost prone on the ice with another defender falling on top of him -- had Lundqvist so rattled that the Rangers pulled him for the third period.
Boudreau now looks prescient, rather than precipitous, in yanking the classy but sometimes inconsistent veteran Theodore for the goalie-of-the-future in Varlamov. At Hershey in the AHL, Varlamov had a fine 19-7-1 record with a 2.40 goals against average. But in this playoff series, he has been even better. At Hershey, he had two shutouts all season. Now he has two in the playoffs in four starts. In brief work in the regular season, he was undefeated -- 4-0-1 -- and became the youngest Russian-born goalie ever to start in the NHL.
To symbolize his split-season, part in the AHL and part in the NHL, Varlamov wears one of the NHL's most unique masks -- the left half has a Caps design, the right half is a Hershey Bears mask.
The Caps have far too many bad memories of last season, when their series against the Flyers followed the same progression, to feel confident now. Momentum shifts are fun to watch. And the Caps' two 4-0 wins reinforce the opinion that they are significantly better than the seventh-seeded Rangers. Nevertheless, that superiority in raw talent may only put more pressure on the Caps. If they are so good, why are they behind? If Varlamov is an upgrade on Theodore, if he brings the Caps' dreams of long-term glory into focus much faster, then isn't it even more incumbent on Washington to get past this first round?
Such thoughts hardly help when you must beat the Rangers in Madison Square Garden to avoid a bitter, shocking and premature end to your season. "The pressure is all on us. The odds are against us," Boudreau said. "Everything is still on us."
So, the drama evolves. The Caps have solved Lundqvist, to some degree, and driven him out of one game. They know he's good, but, now, he also knows they can pierce his shield.
"He made some incredible saves in New York," said Ovechkin, "but he can't play the whole time like this."
The element of mystery in this series now shifts to Varlamov, highly touted since he was the 23rd overall pick in the 2006 entry draft, but also so little known that those around his own team didn't even know how to say his name.
Either first or last.
Two more wins is a long road for any goalie, especially a rookie. But if he keeps his mystique intact, and the net behind him clean, for two more games, the whole NHL will know his name. And pronounce it properly to boot.