By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Simeon Varlamov was one of the final players to leave the Washington Capitals bench last night, slipping over the boards after the conclusion of this second-round series and skating into the embrace of several teammates. He was the second-to-last player through the handshake line, earning appreciative taps from several Pittsburgh Penguins, and a pat on the chest from Evgeni Malkin. And after the Capitals finished saluting their fans and began filing back toward their locker room, Varlamov was the last player skating in small circles and applauding toward the fans.
Finally, captain Chris Clark glided over to the rookie goalie -- who was benched midway through the Capitals' 6-2 Game 7 throttling -- put his arms around the young Russian and ushered him back toward the bench.
"I told him he won a lot of games for us," Clark said. "He's part of this team, and I didn't want him to get down on himself whatsoever. I thought he stole many games. He got us to this point. So that's the biggest thing I wanted to let him know."
Varlamov's dash into the spotlight this spring was both spectacular and unexpected, and his departure was equally abrupt. He saved 14 of 16 shots in the first period last night and then dissolved, yielding goals on Pittsburgh's first two shots of the second. With that, he was done, replaced by veteran José Theodore.
"Way to go, you held us in," Coach Bruce Boudreau told Varlamov, who watched the rest of the game on the bench, wearing a baseball hat.
"After the third goal, I was thinking of pulling him because he looked really dejected, and maybe I should have called a timeout at that point," Boudreau said. "And then after the fourth goal, I think the wind completely came out of his sails emotionally. He's been holding us in and done so much since he took over in Game 2 [of the first round]. And I just thought it just poured out of him, so that's why I made the change then. I wish I had maybe one goal sooner."
Said Varlamov through an interpreter: "I did not have my game tonight. And at that point we were down 4-0, and Coach's decision was absolutely right."
The rookie had played just six NHL games before these playoffs started. Yesterday was his 13th postseason start, and his fourth in six days.
Before that final stretch, he had excelled. His 2.28 goals against average entering Game 7 was fourth among playoff goalies. His .925 save percentage was fifth. He was one of just three goalies with two playoff shutouts -- as many as the Capitals recorded in the 82-game regular season. And he had rescued his team several times, most recently in Monday's Game 6, when he stopped 17 of Pittsburgh's 18 first-period shots.
"He showed us he's gonna be a great goalie for a long time," defenseman Tom Poti said. "He was the reason we were in this point and even playing a Game 7 here, winning the first series. So he's an amazing goalie, and an amazing young kid."
But against a relentless Pittsburgh attack, which outshot Washington in all seven games of this series, Varlamov finally looked vulnerable. In his first 15 NHL appearances, he had allowed four goals only once. Last night, he did so for the fourth straight game. Many came in odd-man rushes against elite scorers, when he had virtually no chance. Others came on straightforward wrist shots from unaccomplished grinders.
"It was more difficult mentally than physically," Varlamov said of the grueling schedule. "Physically I was all right, but of course we had games every other day, and if I had more rest, maybe my game would have been better, but unfortunately that didn't happen."
As the playoffs progressed, Varlamov jerseys and T-shirts began dotting the stands at Verizon Center, where fans chanted his name during introductions. He won a franchise-record five straight playoff games, made a miraculous sprawling stick save against Sidney Crosby in Washington's Game 1 win and prompted thousands of words of praise for the team's front office: for drafting him with a 2006 first-round pick, for refusing to consider peddling him for a veteran defenseman at this year's trade deadline, and for having enough faith to move him into the lineup just one game into the playoffs.
"He played tremendous," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "He really has nothing to be ashamed of or discouraged about. He was unbelievable for us all through the playoffs, and we expect the same for years to come."