The Washington Capitals wanted to anoint Semyon Varlamov as their No. 1 goalie this season. What they obviously didn’t realize is that there is a right time and place to do it with this talented and extremely athletic kid.
Around the time people have to file their taxes seems to work pretty well. After all Varlamov burst onto the scene during the first round of the playoffs a year ago with only six NHL games on his resume, taking over after veteran Jose Theodore had a shaky start and then giving Washington brilliant netminding until the entire team unraveled in Game 7 of the second round against eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh.
It was a performance that had him ticketed to be the starter this season, but the best laid plans thing reared its head instead in Washington for various reasons, and by the time these playoffs rolled around, Varlamov again found himself riding the bench. Truth is Washington coach Bruce Boudreau had little choice in the matter.
Varlamov had a weak start to the regular season and then suffered injuries that kept him sidelined for the better part of three months while Theodore got his act together after New Year’s and was almost unbeatable in the second half. Thing is no one in or around the Washington organization really had much confidence that Theodore could lead their Presidents’ Trophy winning club deep, despite all the public comments to the contrary . But with Varlamov struggling after he returned in early March, the Caps had to go with Theodore and hope for the best.
Boudreau went into the post season insisting that Theodore was not going to be on a short leash even though he was as it turned out. Washington lost the opener at home in their quarterfinal series to eighth-seeded Montreal and then fell behind in quickly in Game 2 before Boudreau repeated history by giving Theodore the hook in favor of Varlamov.
The coach later insisted he was looking to wake up his team rather than blame the veteran, but whatever the rationale was, it worked because like last year, the Caps haven’t looked back. Washington stormed back to win Game 2 and are now heading back home with a 3-1 series stranglehold after winning for the second straight time in Montreal tonight.
And the 6-3 victory posted by Washington has as much to do with Varlamov’s brilliance as it does with the Capitals explosiveness on offense. Varlamov was the story of this game in which Montreal played with the kind of desperation that often lets overmatched teams steal games they otherwise wouldn’t.
Montreal’s strength is in its speed up front and its ability to get on pucks first and the Canadiens made the most of those assets, firing 33 shots at Varlamov over the first two periods in the process. The teams traded goals in the opening frame before Montreal took the attack to another level in the second period by producing 21 shots. Problem is Brian Gionta was the only Canadiens player to get one of those past Varlamov whose diving, flopping and Lightning-quick reflexes repeatedly frustrated the home team and its loud crowd.
More important, Varlamov was keeping his team in a game they weren’t in on their own, and long enough for the Caps to get the break they needed. That came when Mike Knuble converted a great shorthanded two-on-one pass from teammate Boyd Gordon with only seven seconds left in the second period, a killer goal and a momentum changer that was apparent when the teams returned for the final period.
Washington erupted, firing 20 shots at Carey Price and taking control of things when Alex Ovechkin scored his second goal of the game 11 minutes in before Jason Chimera made it 4-2 only 52 seconds later. The Caps scored a couple of empty netters around a Dominic Moore goal after Montreal tried to Hail Mary things in the final three minutes, but by then all Washington was doing was padding its stats.
And reinforcing the notion that this is Varlamov’s time of year.