Friday May 1st, 2009

The Washington Capitals signed a name free-agent goalie last summer, but will enter the second round of the 2009 playoffs on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins with the goalie that was named later.

With 2002 Hart Trophy-winner José Théodore seemingly consigned to the slag heap of bad ideas -- the free-agent signee of 2008 was yanked after Game 1 of the Capitals' first-round series against the Rangers -- Simeon Varlamov now has the pressure squarely on his shoulders. When the playoffs began about two-and-a-half weeks ago, Varlamov was a 20-year-old known in Washington (at least everywhere outside the Russian Consulate) as SIM-e-on VAR-la-mov. When the puck is dropped shortly after 1 p.m. on Saturday, he will be a 21-year-old -- happy birthday! (last Monday) - called Semi-YOHN Var-LAH-Mov, which is not exactly Cassius Clay metamorphosing into Muhammad Ali, but it still is a lot for NBC announcer Mike Emrick to get his mind and tongue around.

The new pronunciation of the goalie's name, like the netminder himself, is a work in progress. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau pronounced it the old-fashioned way during a press briefing on Friday, later conceding that he usually just calls the kid Varley. General manager George McPhee also is a Varley man, which, considering that he drafted the precocious goalie, is reasonable enough.

Sitting in his office in the Capitals practice arena, McPhee recounted a story to SI.com about Varlamov's performance at the NHL combine. The goalie had done the VO2 Max test, one of those conditioning torture drills that leave some teenagers wanting to faint or retch or both. When Varlamov finished, he was winded, naturally, but didn't look like he would need a cot or a bedpan. This was fortuitous because there was a calculation error on his test results. Unfazed, Varlamov hopped on the bike five minutes later and did the test again.

"He was drafted because we thought he was going to be a good one," McPhee said. "The question was when. The answer might be right now because he made it through the first round, but that's just one round. Then again, he might be even better than he was in the first round because he'll have more work."

Certainly. While Varlamov's 4-2 playoff record, 1.17 goals-against average and .952 save percentage were swell, they were compiled against the offensively humble Rangers. As Boudreau delicately noted, New York's firepower is not quite up there with a team that can throw out Sidney Crosby and linemates Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, follow up with a line centered by the Art Ross Trophy-winner, Evgeni Malkin, and go on a power play quarterbacked by Sergei Gonchar.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said that although he did not see much of Varlamov during their mutual AHL time earlier this season -- the injury-plagued goalie played just 27 minor-league games and six with the Capitals before the playoffs -- the team has dissected every goal that has beaten the him. (In the video age, there are no secrets.) Bylsma said he hopes that the Penguins can get enough pucks to the net and create enough traffic to thoroughly vet Varlamov.

The young Russian looks and plays a style that is startlingly similar to Pittsburgh's Marc-André Fleury. Varlamov is almost acrobatic, fast and furious gwith a tremendous cross-crease push and the will to challenge shooters. (His rebound control might be better than Fleury's even now.) But because Varlamov is hyper-aggressive, he leaves himself vulnerable to cross-ice passes and backdoor plays.

"He reacts hard," said Dave Prior, the Capitals' goalie coach. "His reflexes are excellent, so he almost can't help himself. But I've been real pleased with his discipline and control. He's done a better job of controlling at this level than he did in the minors. Maybe that's because there's uniformity with his teammates here and maybe down there at times things got scrambly. The luxury with him is that when he does screw up that way, he has the physical ability to bail himself out. It takes a lot to recover and make that extra save, but he's capable of it."

Before he won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1971, Montreal rookie goaltender Ken Dryden also had played just six regular season games. And in 2006 when he won the Conn Smythe, Carolina rookie goalie Cam Ward started the first round on the bench.

The past may not be prologue, but a Game 1 win over the explosive Penguins would help Varlamov continue to make a name for himself -- even if most of us need diacritical marks to pronounce it.

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