- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NEW YORK | When the playoffs began, the New York Rangers’ goaltender was considered the feature attraction in net.

In just two games, however, rookie Simeon Varlamov has provided the Washington Capitals with a much-needed counterpunch to Henrik Lundqvist and helped put his team back in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

And with his strong performance, Varlamov, always considered a goalie of the future for the Caps, established himself as the netminder of the present.

“What I am most pleased about is the adjustments he’s been able to make,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “[On Monday] night I was really pleased because he made the plays he needed to make, and when he didn’t he was able to make up for his mistake by making an outstanding save to bail himself out. I am pleased for him because he is doing the job we needed him to do.”

Added defenseman Shaone Morrisonn: “Lundqvist has been doing it all series, and now we’ve got [Varlamov] doing it. He’s being consistent, and guys are playing well in front of him.”

The Caps had high hopes for the Samara, Russia, native when they made him the third goaltender selected in the 2006 NHL draft with the No. 23 pick. Varlamov and second-round selection Michal Neuvirth were expected to compete for the team’s goaltending position in the years to come.

Varlamov, who has gained valuable experience playing in international competitions for Russia and in the top league in his home country, was considered a raw, explosive athlete with innate abilities - but he also needed a lot of refinement.

Despite injuries earlier this season, Varlamov has developed at a rapid rate. He’s now backstopping an NHL team with Stanley Cup aspirations - if he can help rescue the Capitals from their 0-2 hole.

“I think there is more of a similarity between [Varlamov] and [Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre] Fleury when he came into the league,” said Prior, comparing his pupil to the No. 1 overall selection in 2003. “They have a lot of ability to react quickly and get around, good mobility. It is just about managing it so you’re successful in this league.”

The shy Varlamov isn’t comfortable speaking English during interviews, but he’s picking up the language during his first season in North America. His father joined him when he played for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League to help him with the transition, and his four Russian teammates on the Caps give him a hand.

“He’s a good kid. We talk a little bit - just basic things,” said center Boyd Gordon, Varlamov’s roommate on the road. “He’s only 20 years old, so he’s pretty young. He’s not polished, but it takes a lot of time to learn a new language. He is doing a great job trying to learn, and he’s fit in well in our [dressing] room.”

Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “My level of communication with him [is] with patting him on the butt and saying, ‘Good game,’ or ‘Go get ‘em,’ and letting Dave Prior deal with him most of the time.”

During a previous trip to the District, Prior purchased an electronic translator and gave it to Varlamov to use both with the Caps and in Hershey, where he didn’t have any Russian teammates.

Defenseman John Erskine said communicating with Varlamov on the ice is not an issue because he knows all the simple phrases he needs - “Rim it” when he wants the puck sent along the boards or “Leave it” when playing the puck behind his net.

Erskine landed in the middle of an interesting communication exchange Monday night between Varlamov and New York forward Sean Avery. Known for his antagonism, the left wing decided to test Varlamov’s mettle by getting in his face and unleashing some verbal barbs. Erskine came over to move him away, and Avery sucker punched Varlamov.

The goaltender proved his moxie by not retaliating and shutting out the Rangers. Avery, meanwhile, was sent to the locker room for the rest of the game.

“He’s pretty calm back there, and I don’t think a lot gets to him,” Gordon said. “That’s a great quality for a goaltender.”

Varlamov has seized the opportunity bestowed on him when starting goaltender Jose Theodore flopped in Game 1. The rookie has stopped 56 of 57 shots he’s seen in this series, including 55 straight.

And to think when Boudreau was trying to decide on whom to start in Game 2, Prior endorsed Theodore.

“I think like a goalie. Bruce deserves full credit because I would not have made the switch initially,” Prior said. “As a goaltender you want to be able to come back and show you’re better than what you gave. I understand that totally, and I told [Varlamov] that if it had been up to me, I would have put [Theodore] back in. He understands why and hopes I would do the same for him if he were in that position.”

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