A Day After Birthday, Varlamov Gets His Present

Sergei Fedorov's third-period goal propels Washington into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade as the Capitals oust the Rangers in Game 7 of their opening-round playoff series, 2-1.
By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Washington Capitals' eldest Russian, 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, was the star of last night's series-clinching 2-1 win over the New York Rangers. Fedorov was the one ushered into the postgame news conference, and the one whose highlight will be the defining moment of this series.

Shortly before Fedorov addressed the media, the team's youngest Russian, 21-year-old Simeon Varlamov, stood up at his locker-room stall and attempted to scoop shaving cream out of his ear before addressing a small circle of reporters. Varlamov's birthday had fallen the day before he helped lead Washington into the second round; his reward was a cream pie in the face.

Goal: Semin; assist: Ovechkin, who had distracted the rookie.

"To be honest, I couldn't have had a better present for my 21st birthday," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "Thanks to the team."

The feelings were mutual. The dominant story line before this series centered on starting goalie José Theodore, the veteran who won 32 games despite an erratic regular season. By Game 2, Theodore had been consigned to the bench, and the fresh-faced Varlamov, with his barely visible playoff beard, was in the net. The rookie had played all of six regular season games, a total he matched yesterday with his sixth playoff start.

He admitted to a case of nerves, and yet he was nearly flawless against a low-octane Rangers lineup. In Game 3, he was perfect while facing 33 shots. In Game 5, he had another shutout, equaling the Capitals' regular season total of two blank scoresheets. Last night, he faced just 15 shots but turned away 14 of them. His .952 save percentage is third among all playoff goalies, and his 1.17 goals against average was less than half that of the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.

"Varly was exceptional," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "I don't know how many 20, 21-year-olds can step into a playoff series in the National Hockey League. . . . Really, the first two periods he gave us a chance when we weren't playing well. You really cannot say enough about the kid. Mentally, he's very special, and he's just as talented."

Coach Bruce Boudreau said repeatedly during this series that he didn't talk to Varlamov because he didn't want to put pressure on him --"I don't want to screw him up, so I am leaving him alone," the coach said last night. He also surmised that the rookie's experience playing in Russian league finals would carry him during his NHL playoff debut. And while Varlamov looked almost blase against the Rangers and said his Russian experience "helped tremendously," he said he also felt the pressure.

"Of course I get nervous," Varlamov said. "You know, nobody's an iron man, especially before the games. You just have to deal with the emotions."

While North Americans say a goalie stands on his head to make outlandish saves, the Russians say "stands on his ear." Varlamov wasn't often required to do either in this series, although his point-blank pad save on Nik Antropov inside the first minute last night was one of the game's crucial moments.

"Awesome," captain Chris Clark said of that save. "You know what, he didn't have to make too many huge saves, but the one save he made tonight kept us in the game. That would have been a backbreaker. . . . We see the best of what he can do, and I think he's the future of our team."

Still, Varlamov -- covered in shaving cream, speaking quietly -- deflected the credit to his defense.

"You just have to look at the statistics: The team played really well in defense, only allowed 15 shots," he said. "I just tried to save the pucks. I didn't try to stand on my ears, because I'm not in the zoo."

Several teammates had joked on Monday that the team would delay its birthday celebration until after one more win; Matt Bradley said the rookie could celebrate with one beer, while Mike Green promised to sing "Happy Birthday" in Russian. With another series looming, though, Varlamov said he didn't have time to celebrate.

"I was just extremely happy that the team progressed and that we're going to play another day," he said. "This is how I celebrated my birthday, with this win. Because tomorrow we're going to have another training session, and get ready for the next series."

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