Commentary

Semyon Varlamov meets challenge

Updated: January 2, 2011, 3:27 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Varly was victorious. Talk about a storyline the Washington Capitals hope to repeat come springtime.

If the Capitals hope to bank on any carryover from Saturday night's 3-1 Winter Classic victory over the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, you better bet it's that the Russian kid in net, Semyon Varlamov, feeds off his impressive big-stage performance.

"It shows that he can play in pressure situations," Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau said after the hugely hyped-up New Year's Day affair.

[+] EnlargeSemyon Varlamov
Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty ImagesSemyon Varlamov made 32 saves in the Capitals' 3-1 win over the Penguins in Saturday's Winter Classic.

The 32-save effort in trying weather conditions might just do wonders for Varlamov's confidence. He needs it after last spring's subpar performance in a shocking first-round loss to Montreal. Net-mate Michal Neuvirth has had his good moments this season as well, but Boudreau tapped Varlamov for the biggest regular-season start of the season, and the hunch paid off handsomely.

"It was a great game for me," Varlamov said through a Russian interpreter. "I was very honored that the coach let me play."

Boudreau's decision was based in part in his hope that Varlamov would use the immense platform of the Winter Classic to get on a run. On a night divisional rival Tampa picked up veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson to shore up its goaltending, the type of move in goal Caps GM George McPhee insists is not needed for his powerhouse team, Varlamov made a statement of his own.

"He sort of just took it mentally on him that he wasn't going to allow anything," Boudreau said of his goalie's Saturday night performance. "He's in a pretty good zone right now shutting out Montreal the last game. He's making a great case this week for being the No. 1 goalie. Who knows what can happen next week? I'm sure Neuvy will get a chance. Before he got hurt he was doing the same thing."

The competition for the starting gig in the playoffs, Boudreau added, will likely continue until the final 10 games of the regular season. By then, the Caps hope the two goalies will have settled their battle.

"Neuvirth and I are playing together and I think we're on the same page," said Varlamov, now sporting a .923 save percentage and 2.18 GAA on the season. "But I've played last few games. I think the coach let me play tonight because last two games I've played really well."

Varlamov was mugged by jubilant teammates as the horn sounded. Just a regular-season game, eh? The emotion from the Caps was palpable.

"You couldn't help it," said Caps veteran Mike Knuble, who opened Washington's scoring. "There's been a lot of buildup."

"It was one of the best feelings in my life," said superstar captain Alex Ovechkin, who marveled at how lucky football players are for playing in big stadiums in front of big crowds. "And your family watching, your friends, and a million people watching you. When you get success, you get two points, you get excited and you just feel good about yourself and about your team."

As we suggested Friday in our Caps story on the eve of the Winter Classic, it just seemed like a victory would mean so much more for a team whose psyche was picked apart by viewers watching HBO over the last month.

A loss Saturday night and you wonder just how much it sets them back. Instead, what started so brutally on Episode 1 of HBO's documentary series "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" will be bookended by a team seemingly back on track and ready to contend for the Stanley Cup.

"You know, this isn't an episode of 'Law & Order' where there's a crime committed, they bring 'em to trial and everything gets done neat and tidy in a 60-minute episode," Caps owner Ted Leonsis said in his team's dressing room after the big win. "The arc of the story still has a lot of narrative to be told. I'm sure we'll look good in the fourth episode. I think we've been playing very well. And we've been toughened and hardened. Adversity and losing and that glare that HBO put on the team I think was character-building. I'm very proud of the way the guys bounced back.

"You're never as bad as people say you are and you're never as good as people say you are. I don't think the guys will go crazy after the win here. It's two points. As I said, we've got a tough game on Tuesday against Tampa."

Indeed, there is work to be done. The Lightning won again Saturday night and are tied with the Caps at 51 points. The second half beckons, spurred on by a Winter Classic victory that was worth more than just two points in the standings.

"We're not denying that it was more than just two points," Boudreau said. "It was a fabulous game. And we came in wanting to win this thing.''

But don't confuse a big win on this big stage as equal to what the Caps are really in search of come springtime.

"It's not a Game 7 tonight," said the always wise Knuble. "I don't know if you prove anything. But I think we can come away just being happy with how we played. And know that we're making progress as a group and we're on the right track as far as being a top team in the East again."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.