“The Penguins have the decisive advantage in goaltending, and that will be the difference in this series.”
These are the sentiments of countless NHL experts who feel that Simeon Varlamov’s magic run this postseason is about to come to an end.
Sure, he stymied the New York Rangers in six games, allowing only seven goals and recording two shutouts, but these are the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lead a considerably better offensive team that will expose the recently turned 21-year old goaltender for the rookie that he is.
"This team is better," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said of the Penguins. "No disrespect to New York, but we'd have no chance being down 2-0 to be able to duplicate it.”
After a game one loss to the Rangers on home ice, Boudreau benched a shaky Jose Theodore for Varlamov, and the rest is turning into history.
Varlamov, who just a couple days ago had to ask his coach whether or not there are shootouts in the playoffs, played in his seventh playoff game on Saturday afternoon; Varlamov played in only six career games before these playoffs.
The Capitals young goaltender stopped 34 of 36 shots, and made the save of the playoffs, and perhaps the season, late in the second period; if Washington is to win this series by a single game, it will be this moment that analysts critique, and highlight shows replay until Crosby and Ovechkin take the ice again next fall.
"Our shot total was 36. That's something you like to see at the end of the game," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think we could have added a few more. We had opportunities. We had chances to get some more goals. We didn't get enough to get the goals we needed to win, so we're going to try to get some more from the 36 shots."
The Penguins had more than just an opportunity late in the second period.
Marc-Andre Fleury kicked his right leg out to absolutely rob Flyers forward Jeff Carter of an all important goal that would have put Philadelphia up 3-1...
Wait a sec...I am having an odd feeling of Déjà vu.
Crosby, who received a cross-ice pass from Chris Kunitz, sent a puck towards a wide open net from just left of the crease. Varlamov had vacated the vicinity, yet twisted himself around and dove to the goal line with his stick.
Crosby lifted his arms in jubilation, thinking that he just put Pittsburgh up 3-2...that’s just how wide open this net was...but when he turned around he saw that Varlamov had robbed him blind.
"I was out of position, there was really nothing I could do, so I lunged with the stick, and it just so happened the puck hit it right on the line," Varlamov said.
"It was kind of a desperation save," Crosby said. "You don't want to waste those opportunities."
Not only was Crosby speechless, Varlamov’s awe-inspiring save amazed his teammates sent the Washington crowd into an absolute frenzy.
"I was stunned. I was like, 'Oh my God.' Just kind of amazed, I guess, taken back," said Capitals forward Brooks Laich. "I saw Crosby shoot it and I was like, 'Oh, that's in,' and he reaches back and just grabs it. The whole bench was kind of just like, 'Whoa, that's our break, let's get going. We've got to smarten up and play better.' Great save. Unreal."
Washington’s netminder had allowed two soft goals up to this point, and whispers were starting to spread that the young Russian was in way over his head. If anyone was looking for a reason to doubt his first round performance, Varlamov had given them just cause.
Crosby (4:09 of the first) sent a rising shot past the glove-hand side of Varlamov early in the first period on a masterful individual effort, and Mark Eaton beat him with a routine shot from the point at 12:54 of the second.
"The first goal could have rattled a 21-year-old goalie and the second goal could have killed a 21-year-old goalie, but this is the playoffs. You can't really dwell on your mistakes. You've got to forget them quickly," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "In games like this, you shouldn't be hard on yourself even after you allow a softie. You don't have the right to be upset too much."
The Penguins dominated the first 12 minutes of Saturday’s encounter, but it was Dave Steckel at 13:50 of the first that registered Washington’s first goal in May sine Joe Juneau’s tally against Buffalo in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.
Alexander Ovechkin made it 2-1 Washington at 17:03 of the first, when he knocked home a power play goal on a five-on-three advantage.
Come on...as if you could talk about a Capital’s game without mentioning Ovechkin.
Despite his tally, Ovechkin was not Washington’s move valuable player on this day, and regardless of the fact that Tomas Fleischmann locked the game up at 1:46 of the third, it was Varlamov that was the key to the Capital punishment Washington dished out on the day.
It has been said that V is for Vendetta, and no vendetta may be on the level of Crosby-Ovechkin, but on this day, V was for Varlamov.
Varlamov was vibrant in victory. Validating his vigorous play with a vintage Roy-like save on a vacated net, Varlamov vindicated coach Boudreau very well by vicariously performing for Theodore.
Despite vehement vacillation that he was vernal in the various aspects of playoff goaltending, Varlamov vanquished Pittsburgh with a variety of valuable saves.
A vaunted Penguin offense sought to violate Varlamov at every turn. Varlamov was invulnerable to the vengeful vilification surrounding him, and kept his poise in the face of adversity.
Vulnerable early, Varlamov became vital to the Capitals victory with invigorated play late.
Vying for vantage in this series, Varlamov’s voluminous save on Crosby sent the vast Washington crowd home happy with a 3-2 victory in game one.