Commentary

Stakes higher, but rookie brings it again

Updated: May 3, 2009, 1:00 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- For a young man who had to ask his coach just a few days ago whether there were shootouts in the NHL playoffs and who grew up playing in cut-down pads with no chest protector, Simeon Varlamov has quickly learned the nuances of playoff action.

When you give up a stinker or two, you'd better make the highlight-reel save when it counts. The 21-year-old Varlamov did just that Saturday afternoon, robbing Sidney Crosby in the second period with what must be the save of this postseason, a stick save that kept the game tied at 2 and set the stage for the Washington Capitals' 3-2 victory in the first game of this eagerly anticipated Eastern Conference semifinal series.

With less than two minutes to go in the second, Crosby dropped the puck to linemate Chris Kunitz, who swept to the right toward the Washington goal. As Varlamov moved to challenge him, Kunitz slipped the puck back across the slot to Crosby on the left side, leaving Crosby with an open net. But just as Crosby's shot was set to cross the goal line, Varlamov whirled and caught the puck with the heel of his goalie stick, and the puck stayed out.

"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."

With so much anticipation in advance of this first playoff clash between Crosby and Alex Ovechkin and Crosby's teammate Evgeni Malkin, one wondered if there would be a kind of lunchbag letdown when they actually got around to playing.

There wasn't.

The Penguins dominated early, controlling the puck and holding a healthy advantage in shots on goal for most of the first half of the first period.

Given the skill set on both sides of this series, there will be long periods in which one team will simply be in command, and then the flow will reverse. It was so on Saturday, as the Capitals held the edge early in the second period.

If it hadn't been for the stellar work by Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, and some bad luck for Ovechkin (he hit a couple of posts and missed another handful of great opportunities), the Caps would have had a sizable lead by the end of the second frame.

Instead, Washington led 2-1 on an Ovechkin power-play goal with the Caps enjoying a two-man advantage late in the first period. With a little more than seven minutes remaining in the second, Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton, not a household name when it comes to scoring, beat Varlamov with a routine shot from the blue line, and you could imagine many in the sold-out Verizon Center looking at one another and saying, "Oh, dear."

For those looking for the "kid can't take the heat" storyline, the Eaton goal would be Exhibit A. The game's first goal by Crosby, a rising shot Varlamov couldn't get his catching glove on, would be Exhibit B. The case was there to be made, the theory being that Varlamov's success against a static New York Rangers team would mean little when he faced a potent offense like the one possessed by the Penguins.

And had he not turned around and made the stop on Crosby, who knows what story this game might have told? But he did make the stop.

"You look at all the great goalies that are in hockey nowadays. No matter where the play is, they never give up. They keep fighting," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.

One never knows what might be lost in tone and tenor when a translator is involved, but Varlamov sounded nothing like a young man who has any self-doubt.

"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."

Was his stop on Crosby the biggest of his career?

"I'd say yes," Varlamov said. "It's one of the best, especially when you consider the kind of game it was, NHL playoffs. I haven't made any saves like that before. And the way the game went, it was a very important save because the score was 2-2. If they score the third goal, you don't know how it would go on."

Varlamov said he tried not to think too much about the pressure of facing Crosby, Malkin, et al, before Saturday's series opener.

"Oh yeah, the reporters were hyping it up real good, and the first day off, I watched some TV and, gee, I found out a lot about this series," Varlamov said through the interpreter. "But I tried not to watch anything in the next two days and tried to forget and relax."

On the save, Crosby appeared in mid-celebration, although he said after the game he just wanted to make sure the officials reviewed the play.

"I knew his stick was awfully close to the goal line," Crosby said. "When you have an open net like that in a 2-2 tie, don't score, then end up losing 3-2, it's easy to say 'what if.' But you have to forget about it. I'm sure [Varlamov] wanted the second [goal] back. But he forgot about it and came back to make some great saves."

One win does not a series make. Nor does one save necessarily make a win. But on this day, when both teams were looking for that one small crease in the other team's psyche, Varlamov proved to be mentally stronger than perhaps anyone had a right to expect.

"If there were any questions about him trying to handle the pressure before the series, I think he's still the same goaltender he was in the first [series]," said David Steckel, the Capitals' faceoff specialist who scored the Caps' first goal of the day. "He's calm and collected. … He was beat up straight-up and he didn't give up on the play and that's a great edge to have as a player."

As a result of his hard work, Steckel was awarded the team's hard-hat award and, as such, was sporting a construction hat adorned with the numbers of the previous winners. It was handed to him by the previous winner, Sergei Fedorov, and Steckel, in turn, will select the next winner.

Not to quibble with Fedorov's selection, but the hat might have looked just as good sitting on Varlamov's sweaty head.

"In the short time that I've known him, I can't say anything really does [rattle him]. Just for the fact that he is Russian and I don't know what he says half the time," Steckel said. "He's playing his game and he's not letting any of the side stuff affect him, and I think that's a smart way to go about it."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.