Capitals solve goaltender Halak in 4-1 win over St. Louis

Washington Capitals' Semyon Varlamov (1), of Russia, watches the puck shot by St. Louis Blues' Matt D'Agostini (36) in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010 in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
Washington Capitals' Semyon Varlamov (1), of Russia, watches the puck shot by St. Louis Blues' Matt D'Agostini (36) in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010 in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam) (Tom Gannam - AP)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 12:06 AM

ST. LOUIS - As Semyon Varlamov smothered shots in the first period and made baffling glove and stick saves that prominently displayed his reflexes, it quickly became clear that this game wouldn't be about the Washington Capitals' playoff nemesis who was in the opposite net, Jaroslav Halak.

Instead, on this night it was Washington's 22-year-old goaltender making dazzling acrobatic saves - along with a few improbable ones - look like simply an extended practice routine. With 37 stops, Varlamov led the way in his and the Capitals' fourth consecutive victory, 4-1 over the St. Louis Blues.

"I played my best game here [Wednesday]," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "The team played real well in front of me, they've continued to do that for the last four games. St. Louis did a really good job of screening the goalie so when that happened the defensemen did a really good job of clearing the bodies out and clearing the pucks when the rebounds were there."

Varlamov is undefeated in his four starts since returning from a groin injury that caused him to miss nearly the first two months of the season. In the span since he was recalled from a conditioning stint with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears on Nov. 22, Varlamov has allowed just five goals on 115 shots for a save percentage of .957 during that span.

What made his showing in St. Louis, which marked the Capitals' first win here in 14 years, stand out among the previous wins was the way Varlamov controlled the majority of his rebounds and made the instinctual, athletic saves he's so well known for look increasingly easy as the game went on.

Facing a Blues squad looking for its first win in four games and keen on keeping the Capitals out of the offensive zone, Washington needed Varlamov to come up with big saves throughout the contest until it got a rare scoring chance against Halak. With each test though, Varlamov was up to the task - whether making a diving stick save on Brad Boyes late in the first, a calm glove save on Alex Steen in the second or stopping a shot by Boyes with his mask in the third.

"We can see he's comfortable out there and he has a lot of confidence, that's something you can see on the bench too," said Nicklas Backstrom who tallied two goals and three points in the victory. "When he makes a good save it gives us guys a lot of energy."

In the other end, Halak finished with 22 saves for St. Louis but didn't appear to hold the same command over the Capitals that he did in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last April as a member of the Montreal Canadiens while giving up large rebounds that magnified Washington's chances.

With Varlamov foiling the Blues' best efforts at every turn, the Capitals could bide their time offensively. After allowing St. Louis the better chances early, Washington took a 1-0 lead just over eight minutes into the game on its second power play when Brooks Laich corralled the puck in front of the net and beat Halak, who was moving right to left across the goalmouth.

A series of wonky bounces on a shift by Washington's fourth line, which in St. Louis was comprised of D.J. King, Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley, yielded the second tally in the middle stanza. Gordon was credited with his first goal of the season when he backhanded a shot toward the net where Halak tried to snare the shot but instead knocked it forward with his glove. The puck then ricocheted of St. Louis defenseman Eric Brewer before crossing the goal line for a 2-0 Capitals' edge.

St. Louis got on the board when a shot by Steen, on the Blues' 23rd attempt of the game, beat a screened Varlamov to make it 2-1 with less than a minute remaining in the second period.

Washington wouldn't dominate possession in the third as St. Louis pressed, but more timely saves from Varlamov held the Blues at bay until Backstrom scored his first goal of the night on a rebound to make it 3-1. Backstrom recorded a second goal for a three-point night with an empty-net tally for the final margin of victory.

"We didn't have a lot of scoring chances," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team travels to face the Dallas Stars on Thursday. "We didn't generate a lot of offense I thought tonight. . . . We just were opportunistic."

Capitals note: Newly acquired defenseman Scott Hannan took part in his first practice with Washington on Wednesday morning but did not play against St. Louis. Boudreau said he plans on adding the veteran blue-liner to the mix on Thursday against the Stars. Hannan watched the win over the Blues with assistant coach Blaine Forsythe to observe the Capitals' systems and playing styles.

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