- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEW YORK

With each passing period in Game 2 of the Capitals-Rangers series, Henrik Lundqvist seemed to grow larger in front of the New York goal. There were 24 square feet of net behind him, but it was hard to see any of it; all you saw was Lundqvist, deflecting shots hither and yon with robotic remorselessness.

Alex Ovechkin and Co. don’t get blanked for 80 minutes very often, even by a netminder of the first rank like the Swede. So you wondered Monday night as Game 3 approached whether the Caps were going to continue to have Lundqvist on the brain - and get swept right out of the playoffs - or whether they might actually make this thing competitive.

It took less than seven minutes to get an answer. With Ovechkin stationed to the left of the goal, occupying Henrik’s attention, Nicklas Backstrom slid a cross-ice pass to Alexander Semin on the other side and voila (or whatever the Russian word is for “voila” is), the Capitals had their first lead since early in the second period in Game 1. Just as important, they reminded themselves that the Rangers netminder isn’t an impenetrable force, he just looked that way when New York was winning the first two games at the Phone Booth.

A short time later, Semin made it 2-0 with a similar tap in, and you could feel the weight lifting from the Capitals’ shoulders - the weight of expectations, the weight of skating into Madison Square Garden and dealing with 19,000… pairs of thundersticks. When Brooks Laich increased the cushion to 3-0 midway through the second period, the Caps had more than enough to win (two more than enough, as it turned out).

Washington 4, Rangers 0 - with Game 4 set for Wednesday night in the same den of inebriation. It’s a series again, folks.

But enough of that. How about The Kid, eh? I’m talking, naturally, about 20-year-old Simeon Varlamov, who allowed just a single goal Sunday in his playoff debut and followed that with another phenom-type effort on hostile ice. He’s been so impressive, in fact, that… well, it’s hard not to think of Ken Dryden.

I’ve gotta believe Ted Leonsis is thinking a little bit about Dryden this morning. For those too young to remember, Dryden was the rookie, out-of-nowhere goalie who carried the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1971 after playing in just six games in the regular season. In his first series - as Uncle Ted, the Lowell, Mass., native, can tell you - he beat Bobby Orr and the defending champion Bruins in Game 7 at Boston Garden (which kept the B’s from capturing three straight titles).

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Varlamov also played in only six games in the regular season (going 4-0-1 to Dryden’s 6-0). I bring this up not to play to the Caps crowd but to suggest: Hey, it’s happened before, y’know. Sure, The Kid has a long, treacherous road ahead of him, but what he’s being asked to do isn’t unprecedented.

(Alas, Leonsis, wearing a smile a goalmouth wide outside the Washington dressing room, couldn’t be suckered into drawing any Varlamov-Dryden comparisons. “My philosophy is one period, one period, one game at a time,” he said with great profundity.)

In 60 minutes Tuesday night, Varlamov changed the karma in this series - perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. Suddenly, it was the Rangers’ fans who were shaking their heads and saying - after The Kid foiled the home team yet again - “What’s it going to take to get the puck past this guy?” Suddenly, it was the Caps’ goaltender who looked bigger in goal than one of those balloons in the Thanksgiving Day parade.

In posting the first shutout of his NHL career, Varlamov couldn’t have been more composed - or so it appeared on the outside. Underneath the body armor, though, his stomach was doing back flips. The importance of the game brought “a lot of pressure” to bear, he said. “I could feel it. I had to fight my own emotions, and the most difficult time was the first 10 minutes of the game.”

If that’s how The Kid plays when he’s nervous…

And now, a brief word about Jose Theodore: Let’s not be pinning the tail on him for the fix the Capitals find themselves in. Granted, he gave up a couple of regrettable goals in Game 1 that kept his club from winning, but… come on. The Caps didn’t bring in Theodore with the idea he’d win them the Stanley Cup. He’d never won one before, had he?

They wouldn’t have minded, of course, if he’d turned into Patrick Roy for a season, but his main function with the franchise was to buy it time - until one of the two youngsters in Hershey, Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth, was ready to take over. And he did exactly that. He helped the Capitals get the second seed in the Eastern Conference, and his save percentage (.900) was well within the norm for him.

Clearly, though, Varlamov is ready. Clearly, it’s his time. He so discombobulated the Rangers in Game 3 that “tough guy” Sean Avery took a swipe at him in the closing minutes, probably just to see whether he was human.

“I knew I could expect those things from him because he’s done those things before,” The Kid said. “That’s his job - to take people out of their emotional balance.”

It was a shot on goal that didn’t show up in the statistics, but he made the save, anyway. So credit him stopping 33 shots and one futile forearm.

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