With Five Goals on Varlamov, Penguins Take Control of Goalie and Momentum

The Capitals lose both Game 4 and their series lead as the Penguins hold serve at home with a 5-3 victory over Washington.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH, May 8 -- It is worth pointing out, Dave Prior believes, that Simeon Varlamov has given up five regulation goals in a game before, and it will happen again. It is also worth pointing out, though, that Varlamov -- the rookie sensation who elevated the Washington Capitals with his unexpectedly splendid play during these playoffs -- gave up those five goals in relative obscurity, as a Hershey Bear. He has never coughed up that many in the midst of an NHL playoff series. On Friday night, he did, and at least partly because of that, momentum in the series has suddenly and unmistakably swung away from the Capitals and directly to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"I don't know if I'd classify it as a poor performance," Prior, the Capitals' goaltending coach, said immediately after watching video of every goal in the Penguins' 5-3 victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The numbers, though, show differently, and the Capitals' head coach, Bruce Boudreau, said frankly, "He struggled." Before Friday night's loss -- which evened the series at two games apiece -- Varlamov had played nine games in these playoffs and hadn't allowed more than three goals. The Penguins scored three times on their first 13 shots -- all in the first period. He finished with 23 saves on 28 shots -- statistically, his worst performance as an NHL player.

There were plenty of other reasons the Capitals lost, and Varlamov mixed in a few athletic, sprawling saves, the kind Washington has come to expect from the 21-year-old whose NHL career now spans all of 16 games. But there was one unforgivable goal, a wrist shot from Ruslan Fedotenko late in the first period, one Varlamov stabbed at with his glove -- and missed.

"The third one's one I know he'd like to have over," Prior said. "He sort of muffed it."

There may have been others Varlamov wanted back; he did not speak to reporters following the game. The first goal, off the stick of Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar, slipped between Varlamov's legs, though Prior said Varlamov was screened by one of his own defenders. The final goal, from winger Maxime Talbot, was "a well-located shot," Prior said, over Varlamov's pad but under his blocker.

"I know he'd like to make the save at that point in the game to keep your team alive," Prior said, "but he had just done that previously, with a sort of splendid save in the goal line area."

In that manner, the Capitals generally stuck up for their goalie. Still, he now faces a situation that is new to him at this level: bouncing back.

"He's played unbelievable this playoff series and last series," Washington captain Chris Clark said. "If he gets it all out of him in one game, that's great. We have all the confidence in him."

Varlamov, though, must continue to have confidence in himself. In his first nine playoff games, he had a .942 save percentage, and his performance in the first two games of this series was the most significant factor in the Capitals' two wins. On Friday night, though, he posted the worst save percentage (.821) of his NHL career. After allowing nine goals in his first seven playoff games -- six of which were against the offensively impotent New York Rangers -- Varlamov has allowed 11 goals in his last three games.

"He's human," Boudreau said. "He hasn't had a bad game. When you look at it, it's his 10th game, I think, in the playoffs, and arguably there were four soft goals out of the five."

There is hardly any time to analyze Varlamov's Game 4 performance, with a pivotal Game 5 Saturday night in Washington. But that's what Prior's job is -- to look at the goals Varlamov yielded and the saves he made, and figure out, in less than 24 hours, how to fix things.

"We'll talk about what could have been better," Prior said. "Some of his errors have nothing to do with pucks going in the net. That's where my focus will be, a lot more than the lack of save percentage numbers and stuff."

When the final horn sounded at Mellon Arena, Varlamov skated slowly from his goal to the opening in the boards, then shuffled to a quiet Washington locker room. Asked if Varlamov would return to his spot Saturday night, Boudreau said, "As far as I'm concerned, yes."

"He'll bounce back," Boudreau said. "He's a real competitive guy."

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