Pens-Caps Game Five Preview: Can Simeon Varlamov Stop a Surging Pittsburgh?

jonathan staubCorrespondent IMay 9, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 06:  Goaltender Simeon Varlamov #40 of the Washington Capitals guards the net against the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinal Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Mellon Arena on May 6, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

As the pressure continues to mount for the Washington Capitals, Game Five will put the spotlight squarely on Simeon Varlamov, the Capitals' 21-year old netminder who had been lights-out up until Friday night.


Looking human for the first time since taking over for Jose Theodore in Game Two of Washington’s first-round series with the New York Rangers, Varlamov was visibly beside himself, and could be seen shaking his head after allowing multiple soft goals in a 5-3 loss for the Caps.


As the spotlight continues to shine ever so vibrantly on the young Varlamov, he will be facing a Pittsburgh squad that has all the momentum squarely in their corner.


The Penguins used a relentless assault to rattle Varlamov in their Game Four win, and after playing phenomenal hockey in the Caps' first- and second-round series, the magic may be fading from Varlamov’s arsenal.


The Washington offense has done little to help the team's cause, and the Capitals were penalized six more times on Friday, bringing their series total to 23; the Penguins have only surrendered 13 power-play opportunities by comparison.


Their undisciplined style of play not only gives Pittsburgh the chance to score on the power-play, but it also keeps Alexander Ovechkin off the ice.


It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out how costly that could be to Washington’s offensive cause.


Ovechkin was kept largely in check on Friday night, and the Penguins used defensemen Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi to shadow the Russian phenom for most of the night.


A common theme has been to assume that you cannot control Ovechkin; you can only hope to contain him. The Pens did more than contain Ovechkin in Game Four, as he was held without a goal for the first time in this series, and was not allowed to drive the scoring lane on Marc-Andre Fleury, thus also limiting his shots.


Ovechkin was held to two shots in 25 minutes of ice time Friday night.


The Capitals must be experiencing nightmarish bouts of déjà vu, as the Penguins are looking to come back from yet another postseason series deficit to the Capitals, and steal away a series that was starting to look hopelessly lost in light of Varlamov’s spectacular play.


The teams have been forced to play on back-to-back nights thanks to scheduling conflicts at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.


While this has drawn the ire of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, both teams have to deal with it, and that could bode very well for a Penguins squad that will need to steal a game in Washington if they hope to advance to the Conference Finals for the second year in a row.


In a statement, Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer echoed Leonsis' concerns but offered no apologies.

"We agree ... that it is unfortunate when you have to play back-to-back in the playoffs," the statement said. "However, it has happened before, it is sometimes unavoidable, and it impacts both teams equally."

Does it sound to anyone else as if the Capitals are getting their excuses ready?

"We said we've got to get two at home, and now we've got to try to get one on the road," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said.

This could prove to be challenging for Pittsburgh as Varlamov has been tough on home ice.

Pittsburgh looks like a freight train that is set to run away with this series, but it appears as though they will have to do so without Sergei Gonchar, who went down hard in game four after a knee-on-knee hit from Ovechkin.


Gonchar's teammate on the Russian Olympic team, Ovechkin weighed in on the unfortunate collision after the game.


"I just tried to move him and I hit him, he turned to move to his left and, I don't know, I don't have time to realize what's going on and he hit my knee," Ovechkin said. "I think it was an accident. I'm not the kind of player who wants to injure guys, especially ones I know like Gonch."

While it is hard to imagine a player of Ovechkin’s caliber deliberately trying to injure a fellow countryman, the Pittsburgh locker room was not as understanding.


"I mean, you can run guys, guys are fair game, but the guy [Ovechkin] takes strides every time and leaves his feet a lot of times, too," Orpik said. "To us, we got the feeling he's really trying to hurt guys at times."

While the NHL may consider looking into this play, Alex the Great will be on the ice Saturday night, and Sergei Gonchar won’t; the Penguins called up Alex Goligoski to take his place.


Game Fives are more important than let on, especially when series are tied at two.


A win by Pittsburgh will all but lock this series up, as it will be hard to imagine Washington traveling into Pittsburgh and regaining any sense of momentum.


The Penguins are playing fast, aggressive, physical hockey in this series, and Washington has looked over-matched at times.


The Verizon Center will be a sea of red on Saturday, and Washington needs to score first and often if they are hoping to re-establish themselves in this series before it is to late; the Capitals will also be trying to buck a trend in this series, as the team that has scored first has lost every game so far.



Player to watch


The most important player in this series will not be named Crosby, Malkin, or Ovechkin. Rather, it will be Varlamov in the Capitals net.


The young netminder may be on a short leash tonight, and he needs to establish himself early. Soft goals really appeared to get to him in Game Four, and if he falters again in Game Five, expect a Jose Theodore sighting.


Despite the attention that Crosby and Ovechkin have drawn in this postseason—they are one-two in postseason goals with Crosby registering nine to Ovechkin’s eight—the focus of this game will be on Varlamov.


He has shown that he belongs, he has played great so far with a goals-against average just below two, but he has shown signs of his inexperience in the last two games, in which he has surrendered eight goals. He had allowed only nine goals in the six games prior.


Pittsburgh is sure to launch a vast array of shots from every angle at Varlamov, and it will be up for him to control his rebounds and keep the game close.


Washington’s defense will need to lend a hand, but this game boils down to just how short of a memory Varlamov has.



Interesting developments


Another interesting facet of the game to keep an eye on will be the Penguins’ aggressiveness toward Ovechkin.


After what appeared to be a somewhat dirty play, the jury is still out, the refs will be keeping their whistles in hand just in case someone decides to take a run at Ovechkin early.


One or two cheap shots could result in a couple of extra-man advantages for the Capitals, and this could prove costly for Pittsburgh.


Keep an eye on whether or not big Brooks Orpik takes a run at Ovechkin shortly after the opening face-off.