Semyon Varlamov comes on strong for the Washington Capitals

In his past six starts, Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov has a 4-0-2 record with a 1.48 goals against average a .949 save percentage.
In his past six starts, Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov has a 4-0-2 record with a 1.48 goals against average a .949 save percentage. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

After an admittedly slow October, Washington Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov has regained the form that made him an overnight star in the playoffs last spring.

The 21-year-old has been one of the NHL's best netminders over his past six starts, posting a 4-0-2 record with a 1.48 goals against average a .949 save percentage, a surge that not only has restored Coach Bruce Boudreau's confidence in him but also catapulted the Russian into Calder Trophy consideration.

"The difference is at the beginning of the year, you're a first-year guy coming in and sometimes you have settle into your routine and get back to the way you were last year, and he's doing that now," Boudreau said. "Every little thing bothered him at the beginning, I think he's letting that go now. Every player goes through peaks and valleys during the year maybe his was at the beginning of the year."

Varlamov is expected to start at Bell Centre in Montreal, the grand stage where his NHL career began with a 2-1 victory before a capacity crowd Dec. 13, 2008, also on a Saturday night.

"Right now," he said. "I'm playing every game and I'm feeling better and better."

Varlamov went 5-0 in October, but he showed a penchant for yielding goals in bunches, allowing them in the third period, while his glove hand, which had been exposed in the playoffs, still appeared to be a liability. Through his first five games, Varlamov posted a pedestrian 3.24 goals against average and a .884 save percentage.

After allowing four goals in a sloppy 5-4 win in Atlanta -- Boudreau felt two of the Thrashers' goals should have been stopped -- Varlamov saw his playing time cut. He started just two of the next eight games, giving way to veteran José Theodore.

But instead of sulking, Varlamov went to work with new goaltending coach Arturs Irbe.

"It's a learning process, but because he's such a good student, it didn't take him long to get back to where he wants to be," Irbe said. "He's a hard worker and a very serious guy."

Since Atlanta, Varlamov is 5-1-2 with a 1.86 goals against average and a .940 save percentage. On Wednesday, he posted his first regular season shutout against Buffalo with a 25-save gem.

Before each practice, Irbe and assistant coaches Dean Evason and Bob Woods line up dozens of pucks and take turns firing them at Varlamov, who then angles the rebounds to the corners. Many of the shots are directed at his glove hand. "Seeing how he handles the puck with his glove now, he's just more comfortable," Irbe said. "For goalies, small things actually mean a lot. For me, if I didn't like my glove or stick, I felt like a totally different goalie. I was not myself."

Varlamov's recent surge has vaulted him into the top half of the league's goalies. His .922 save percentage ranks seventh, while his 2.35 goals against average and nine wins are 13th.

Even with the slow start, Varlamov still only has one career loss in regulation (13-1-3) and is being mentioned in the same conversation as standout first-year players John Tavares of the Islanders, Victor Hedman of the Lightning and James van Riesmdyk of the Flyers, among many others, in a deep rookie class.

"It's one of my dreams," Varlamov when asked about following in Alex Ovechkin's footsteps and being named hockey's top rookie. "My dream is I want to win a Stanley Cup, a gold medal and rookie of the year."

Capitals Notes: Shaone Morrisonn (concussion) practiced with his teammates, but said afterward he's not ready to return to the lineup. . . . Alexander Semin (wrist), Quintin Laing (broken jaw) and Mike Knuble (broken finger) all skated after the main practice. Boudreau estimated Semin could return Thursday.

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