No Longer A No-Name
Varlamov Becomes One of the Most Recognizable Capitals
Monday, May 4, 2009
Simeon Varlamov said not a word when he took yet another black Sharpie from yet another outstretched hand early yesterday afternoon at the Washington Capitals' Arlington training complex. He looked directly down at the jersey in front of him -- one with his name across the back, an island in a sea of red sweaters bearing the name "Ovechkin" -- and signed an autograph. It was not legible, whether the alphabet in use was Roman or Cyrillic, just a swooshing, low-riding C-shape that marked his first name, a scribble for his last, followed by "40," his number, the only unmistakable aspect of the mess.
"Thank you, Varly," the fans said, over and over, as Varlamov continued to sign jerseys and hats and hockey cards, only looking up as he slid through the crowd, stopping when someone wanted a picture. Two months ago, Varlamov could have walked through the metal gate that separates the players from the public at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and marched to his Lexus unscathed. Yesterday, though, he was less than 24 hours removed from all of Verizon Center chanting a nickname he never had growing up in the industrial city of Samara, Russia -- "Var-ly! Var-ly!" He was less than 24 hours removed from making what was instantly described by an NBC analyst as "the save of the playoffs," a sprawled-out, reach-back-with-the-stick, oh-my-gosh-did-he-stop-it-before-the-line robbery of Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby.
Two months ago, though, Varlamov's entire circumstances -- his profile, his accomplishments, even the most common American pronunciation of his name -- were different. Only his demeanor remains the same.
Yesterday, Varlamov left Capitals practice as the main reason Washington holds a 1-0 lead over Pittsburgh in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. He is the reason that, in a matter of two weeks, goaltending has gone from the Capitals' most obvious weakness to a potential strength, even if he turned 21 just a week ago today. Because he entered yesterday with the lowest goals against average in the playoffs (1.29) -- and that includes one shaky goal he allowed in Saturday's 3-2 victory -- he departed practice not as an anonymous backup, but as a focal point headed into tonight's Game 2.
"It's like a dream come true," Varlamov said quietly through an interpreter. "I was playing for the farm club before, and now I'm really having fun. I'm thinking only about playing here in Washington and in this league. I'm not thinking about any of the attention or pressure. I don't concentrate on that. I'm trying not to see it."
None of this was expected when the Capitals began the playoffs, when coaches and television analysts alike were still mispronouncing his name, placing the emphasis on the first syllable rather than the second. Varlamov now has one more appearance in the postseason (seven) than in the regular season. Even his career with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals' affiliate in the American Hockey League, lasted only 27 games, shortened by injury and his toggling back and forth to serve as the backup in Washington for veteran José Theodore, a former league MVP. Even then, he was with the Capitals only because Brent Johnson, the stalwart 32-year-old backup, was injured.
"I was preparing myself to play," Varlamov said. "But I didn't really count on it."
Nor, really, did the Capitals. Theodore was signed to a two-year deal in the offseason to serve as the bridge to Varlamov, a first-round draft pick in 2006, and Michal Neuvirth, either of whom was expected to step forward next season or in 2010-11. But from the moment three years ago Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior saw a tape of Varlamov playing for Yaroslavl in Russia's top league, he knew the kid -- then just a teenager -- had ability.
"If you have a really good team," Prior said he told Capitals General Manager George McPhee, "you may never need some of this guy's qualities as an athlete, because he's so powerful, so explosive."
Still, much had to happen to get Varlamov in this position. His experience in leading Yaroslavl to the finals of the Russian Superleague, he said, prepared him for what was in front of him in the United States.
"Without this experience, I think I wouldn't be able to play at this level here," Varlamov said yesterday. "It was very important."
Still, Varlamov had much to learn. Ovechkin, a Moscow native and fellow 20-something, helped Varlamov during training camp, taking him and other young Russians such as winger Dmitri Kugryshev, a second-round pick in 2008, to dinner. Varlamov's father, Alex, twice traveled from Samara to the United States to help with his son's adjustments, be they cultural or culinary.