- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

Simeon Varlamov followed one of the worst goals he has allowed in his brief NHL career with one of the best saves he’s ever going to make.

Varlamov stopped 34 shots Saturday at Verizon Center, and none was more important than his sprawling stick save on Sidney Crosby late in the second period of the Washington Capitals’ 3-2 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

“I’m sure he’s the first one to tell you he let in a soft one tonight, but the way he responded was tremendous,” Caps center David Steckel said. “That save he made in the second period turned the momentum back around because they were giving it to us. It was vital for us.”

Added Varlamov through an interpreter: “There was no other option left to me - I just had to play it with my stick. There was nothing else I could do. If he put the puck anywhere else, it would be in the net, so I guess it was lucky.”

Tomas Fleischmann broke a 2-2 tie 1:46 into the final period with his first goal since Game 1 of the previous series. Alexander Semin sent a slap pass to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing, and he was able to feed Fleischmann near the right post past a diving Sergei Gonchar.

Fleischmann flipped his shot off Marc-Andre Fleury’s left shoulder and into the net.

“The puck didn’t stay [flat] really well, so I had to just chip it over him like a golf shot,” Fleischmann said.

Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton had tied the score at 2-2 with a shot from the left point 12:54 into the second period. It was a rare easy goal allowed by Varlamov; the puck was not redirected and just squeezed under his left arm.

“That goal was just my mistake. That’s all,” Varlamov said. “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.”

The 21-year-old rookie made up for it later in the period. Crosby appeared to have a sure goal when he tapped a pass from Chris Kunitz along the ice toward the net, but Varlamov was dove back and knocked the puck away with the heel of his stick.

“You have an open net like that, you want to take advantage of it,” Crosby said. “We ended up losing the game 3-2, so you look back and say, ‘What if?’ But the fact is, that happens in the game. As a player, you have to forget quickly.”

Crosby netted the first goal of the series 4:09 into the opening period. He took a pass from Bill Guerin and cut between Brian Pothier and Alexander Semin before snapping a wrist shot past Varlamov.

Steckel potted his first of the playoffs to even the score at 13:50. Matt Bradley sent the puck toward the net from a sharp angle along the right boards, and Steckel put home the rebound as he crashed into Fleury.

Alex Ovechkin gave the Caps the lead after a beautiful slap pass from Semin at 17:03 of the first. With Washington on a two-man advantage, Semin drew Fleury from his crease by winding up at the top of the offensive zone and then connected with Ovechkin in the left circle for a shot into a wide-open net. It was Ovechkin’s fourth goal of the playoffs.

“It was a pretty cool play,” Ovechkin said. “I was shocked he gave me the puck, and I almost missed the net.”

But the theme of this contest was Varlamov. He won his fourth straight start; a win in Game 2 would set a franchise playoff record. This was the most rubber that the Samara, Russia, native has faced in seven postseason starts, and the stick theft on Crosby wasn’t his only big stop; he denied the Penguins on several odd-man rushes.

Varlamov still leads all goaltenders this postseason with a 1.29 goals-against average, and his .950 save percentage is one-hundredth of a point from the top spot. His ability to bounce back from a bad goal and prevail in a tight contest was still in question before Saturday’s matinee, but he provided a strong answer.

“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,” Varlamov said. “You can’t dwell on your mistakes. You have to forget them quickly.”

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