Capitals Goalie Semyon Varlamov Stays Sharp in Home Opener

Semyon Varlamov won his first game of the season by making 27 saves Saturday, including this one on Matt Stajan.
Semyon Varlamov won his first game of the season by making 27 saves Saturday, including this one on Matt Stajan. (By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

The Washington Capitals held a 1-0 advantage midway through the first period of their home opener Saturday night when a slap shot caromed off the boards, behind the goal that Semyon Varlamov protected.

In the split second it took for the puck to slide toward the net, he stretched across the goal mouth and extended his left leg for a toe-pad save on Toronto's John Mitchell. Roughly a minute later, Varlamov thwarted Toronto's Viktor Stalberg from tipping in a short-handed goal from atop the crease.

Before half a period had elapsed in just his seventh regular season NHL game, the 21-year-old Russian goaltender showed he was ready to pick up exactly where he left off from his successful run in the 2009 playoffs.

"Those are the kinds of saves we need to propel us," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "When a goalie makes saves like that, you know if the other team can score quick that you're in for a battle all night. But just knowing the goalie's sharp can make such a big difference for how the rest of us play."

Varlamov stopped 27 of the 31 shots he faced in the Capitals' 6-4 win over the Maple Leafs but was noticeably displeased that he gave up four goals. Neither his teammates nor his coach faulted Varlamov for Toronto's ability to get back in the game with three third-period tallies, though, as they instead pointed to a late-game defensive letdown.

"I don't hold anything against him. He played great," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Our team let him down. There wasn't much he could do on any of the goals in the third period -- rebounds and deflections, and through screens. It's tough to stop those."

Varlamov's effort against the Maple Leafs came on the heels of veteran José Theodore's 19-save performance in a season-opening 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins, kicking off what will be an extended evaluation of each goaltender's successes and failures over the next few months.

The competition for Washington's starting job has been well documented ever since Varlamov stepped into the limelight during the team's postseason run this past spring. But Boudreau has been adamant that both Varlamov and Theodore will receive ample playing time in the first half of the season, hoping one will seize the opportunity to rise above the other.

Yet despite the high stakes, Varlamov insists he doesn't feel a demand to match Theodore game for game, win for win.

"I can't say I feel any pressure," Varlamov said through interpreter Slava Malamud. "The first game José played, he won. The first game I played, I won, so no pressure. We'll just keep working."

Varlamov returned to Washington this summer determined to show he was ready to compete for a starting position. After learning what to expect of an NHL goaltender's increased workload, he adopted new exercises to prevent fatigue and subsequent injuries like those that limited his playing time with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears last season.

His ability to communicate with teammates also has improved. The Capitals hired Russian-speaking Arturs Irbe as a goaltending coach to help ensure nothing would be lost in translation, and Varlamov has become more comfortable speaking English. He has surprised Pothier and other teammates by carrying on lengthy conversations in English, and the slight miscues between defense and goaltender are largely a thing of the past.

Varlamov's quiet resolve often causes his teammates to forget that he is starting a season in the NHL for the first time, but they need to avoid taking his reflexes in net -- like those that were on display for big saves against Toronto -- for granted.

"His play can lead to a sort of a false sense of security a little bit, because he played so well we might have been thinking that we were playing better in front of him than we actually did," Pothier said. "But he does that for you. He makes those big saves and you forget this is only his seventh regular season game."

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