Photo credit: Patrick Smith
In April 2009, a young Russian goalie by the name of Simeon Varlamov started game two of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals after number one netminder Jose Theodore’s poor game one. The 21-year-old didn’t speak passible English, sported a unibrow, and soon became the talk of the NHL.
Varlamov allowed one goal in his first game and posted a shutout the next. In six games versus the New York Rangers, Varlamov allowed a mere seven goals. Though the Caps would eventually lose to the Penguins in game seven of the semifinals, it appeared that Washington had found their goalie of the future. But two years later, Varlamov (with the spelling of his name now changed to Semyon) was unceremoniously sent to the Colorado Avalanche for a pair of draft picks.
Varly had become Washington’s main goalie after Theodore departure, but after battling groin injuries as an explosive, athletic goaltender, he struggled to get back in the crease when healthy. Bruce Boudreau, the Caps coach at the time, seemed to favor fellow 2006 draft pick Michal Neuvirth. With his contract up at the end of the 2011-12 season, Varly wanted to be assured of starting spot. The Caps weren’t interested in that. On July 1, Varlamov was sent to Colorado. He signed a three-year contract with the team the next day.
Now, three years later, Varly was back in Washington to face Neuvirth for the first time. At least in the first round, he came out on top.
“I was so nervous,” Varlamov said in much improved English, as his teammates cheered him on in the background. “Lots of memories to play here. That was my first game since I left Washington, that’s why I think I’m too nervous in warmup. My legs were shaking. All of the first period, my legs shaking.”
Varly’s Avs are off to their best start since the team moved to Colorado. Under new head coach Patrick Roy, one of the best of goalies of all time, Varlamov has posted a 3-0 record and save percentage of .967 this season. Saturday, he recorded 41 saves in as the Avs pummeled the Capitals 5-1.
“It’s so special for the goalie to beat the old team,” he said. “I think I was dying out there today.”
Varlamov struggled in his first two years in Colorado, on an Avalanche team with terrible defense. Last year, his GAA was above three. Varlamov, though, is not only under a new bench boss, but well regarded goalie coach Francois Allaire. What Varly credited most of all, though, was the team’s improved defensive play.
“First of all, it’s all about the coaching staff,” he told me. “It’s all about the team system.”
“So many things change from last year,” Varlamov added. “I think guys play better defensively right now. They help me a lot out there. The guys play better, I play better.”
When I asked Varly about whether he had seen any old friends upon visiting Washington, his mind immediately turned to Caps fans. Their support, he said, had always touched him. After the game, Varlamov offered them a stick statue.
“You know what, in the warmup I saw lots of jerseys with my last name,” Varly said. “I want to say to those fans: thank you, thanks for coming. They still remembering. I was excited to see those jerseys.”
It’s still early to judge the trade (which, in the end, was basically Varlamov for Martin Erat), but — at least on Saturday — Colorado had the better end of the deal. Varlamov joked with reporters in the visitor’s locker room at Verizon Center while the Caps sulked about their 1-4 start on the home side. In the starting job he’s always wanted, Varlamov and the Avalanche are 5-0.
“I’m loving it,” Varlamov said.