Saturday May 2nd, 2009

The spotlight was focused squarely on Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin coming into Saturday's opener of the Eastern Conference semifinal. No surprise that both lived up to the hype, each man scoring a nifty goal and involving themselves in several high-quality chances in a contest ultimately claimed by the Capitals, 3-2.

Before this series is over, it's likely that each will assert their will on a contest and make it their own. But not today. This game was all about Washington netminder Simeon Varlamov and one of the most jaw-dropping saves in playoff history.

Not that it started off all that well for the rookie. He was beaten early by a clever but very-stoppable shot from Crosby, who took a pass from Bill Guerin in the neutral zone, broke into the middle of the ice and shot across his body. The puck sailed over Varlamov's stationary glove hand to give the Pens a 1-0 just 4:09 into the first.

After the Caps calmed some early jitters and pounced on Pittsburgh's self-destructive tendencies to take a 2-1 lead, Varlamov gave it back when an unscreened, untouched 60-footer from offensive lightweight Mark Eaton sailed under his glove midway through the second.

It had the potential to be a deflating moment for the rookie who played the shot a bit too passively. And it certainly gave life to the Penguins, who found their legs after spending most of the period struggling to match the intensity and puck pursuit of the hungrier Capitals.

But while his teammates sagged -- time and again making inexplicable defensive decisions that led to odd-man breaks for the Penguins -- a grimly determined Varlamov asserted himself as the best player on the ice. He stood his ground against several tough chances, including a nifty stop in tight on Petr Sykora moments after the equalizer, to keep the game tied.

Then came his moment. And, surprisingly, the chance was created by another brutal read by the Washington defense. This time, Tom Poti was a step late coming back into the zone, allowing Chris Kunitz to feed a cross-ice pass to Crosby, who had 15 feet between himself and wide open net. As he drifted it toward the cage, Varlamov sprawled backwards across the crease, his paddle extended in desperation. Just as the puck hit the line, it met up with Varlamov's paddle and skittered harmlessly into the corner.

Redemption.

It was the save of the playoffs, so stunning that it'll make the sportcasts in markets that don't show hockey unless it involves a line brawl or a streaker in red socks smashing his head on the ice. And he made it on Crosby, of all people.

Lucky? Of course it was. Crosby gets any elevation on the puck at all and it's a different outcome. But you've got to give full marks to Varlamov for not giving up on the play. The book on the 21-year-old suggests his best qualities are his competitiveness and athleticism. Hard not to see that now.

Thomas Fleischmann eventually broke the deadlock 1:46 into the third, taking a silky pass from Nicklas Backstrom before snapping a one-timer past Marc-Andre Fleury for the game winner.

The Pens mounted a modest assault the rest of the way, outshooting the Caps 13-6 in the final period. But even as his mates continued make mental errors, Varlamov was there, making 34 stops on the day.

Prior to their first round series against the Rangers, I noted that Varlamov's resume at was pretty much limited to babysitting and lawn mowing. After out dueling Olympic gold medallist and three-time Vezina finalist Henrik Lundqvist, and today's first star performance, that CV is starting to look a little more impressive.

The thinking before Game 1 was that this series was his to win or lose. After Game 1, the Caps have to be feeling good about their chances.

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