Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer
NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers still have an All-Star in goal, but after the last 120 minutes of hockey played in this best-of-7 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal round series, it's safe to say they no longer have the edge over the Washington Capitals.
Simeon Varlamov is his name and at least in the last two games this 20-year-old Russian rookie goalie has done everything possible to even up the goaltending, an area in which the Rangers certainly thought they had an advantage heading into the series and definitely did after Game 1.
Varlamov stopped all 33 shots he faced Monday night in a pivotal Game 3 at a deafening Madison Square Garden, and the Capitals beat Lundqvist four times for a 4-0 victory to slice their deficit in this series to 2-1.
Game 4 is Wednesday night back at the Garden and Varlamov will bring a shutout streak of 112:16 into the game. The lone goal he has allowed was to Ryan Callahan just 7:44 into the first period of Game 2.
"It's very important that when you play in the playoffs that the goalie plays the best," Varlamov said through an interpreter. "If the goalie plays the best then the team feels more confident. I understand the value for my team in being a great goalie."
Varlamov was the surprise starter in Game 2 on Saturday for Jose Theodore, who allowed four goals on 21 shots in a 4-3 loss in Game 1. The Russian was good in stopping 23 of 24 shots, but the Caps couldn't beat Lundqvist and lost, 1-0.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, secretive about who he would start in goal all the way up to when the lineups were finally announced, sent Alex Ovechkin to tell Varlamov on Monday morning that he was going to start.
Varlamov, who entered these playoffs with only five games of NHL experience, was stoic the entire night. Sure, he got some help from the left post on a would-be goal by Ryan Callahan on an open net, but the Rangers simply couldn't solve him at all. He became only the fourth goalie in League history to record a playoff shutout prior to his 21st birthday.
Varlamov also kept a straight face when notorious pest Sean Avery got in his face time and again, including in the waning moments of the game when Avery threw a frustration punch at Varlamov and received a roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct.
Avery finished with 18 penalty minutes and the Rangers had a total of 26, giving Washington six power plays. The Capitals scored their third and fourth goals with the man-advantage.
"My main job is to catch the puck and I was trying to focus on it throughout the whole game," Varlamov said. "I know he can get you out of your balance, but for me it was really important to keep a straight face and really concentrate on the game."
Boudreau gave Avery a lot of credit for showing the courage to go to the front of the net, but said Avery's attempts at throwing Varlamov off his game were misguided because of the language barrier.
"I think he was trying to stir it up," Boudreau said, "but he's trying to stir it up with a guy that doesn't know what he's talking about."
Ovechkin thinks watching Theodore in Game 1 and experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the bench helped Varlamov, who has played in pressure situations before, including the finals of the Russian Elite League as well as for Russia in the World Junior Championships.
"He played in World Juniors, but this is the NHL playoffs and I think the first game when Theo played he got good experience what was going on, watch the atmosphere and the tempo of the game," Ovechkin said. "He's so calm."
There aren't enough superlatives to throw out about Varlamov's effort, but the same could be said about the Capitals as a whole Monday night.
Alexander Semin, who couldn't find his rhythm in Game 2, scored two first-period goals and had the primary assist on Brooks Laich's power-play goal in the second period. Nicklas Backstrom played arguably his best game of the season.
Backstrom, who wound up with three assists and a plus-2 rating in 20:58 of ice time, was a key component in the Capitals' second goal.
After Callahan's shot hit the left post, the puck dribbled through the crease and Backstrom picked it up on the other side and started the play up the ice.
"I think he was trying to stir it up, but he's trying to stir it up with a guy that doesn't know what he's talking about." -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau on Sean Avery trying to throw SimeonVarlamov off his gameMoments later, with the puck still in his possession along the left wing half-boards in the Caps' attacking zone, Backstrom protected the puck by knocking Callahan down. He then fed Ovechkin behind the goal line, and No. 8 set up Semin for the backdoor goal.
"I don't know if there are words," Boudreau said when asked to describe how good Backstrom was. "He kills penalties, plays the power play and a regular shift. I don't know how much ice time he got, but he was fabulous."
After blocking 50 shots through two games, the Rangers blocked only 13 Monday night. That's because the Caps did a lot less blind shooting from the outside and more cycling down low.
The Rangers had no answer.
"We were kind of watching, sitting around and you know what is going to happen to you," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "As hard as they came, we really didn't match it. We were all watching the puck and not breaking up their cycle fast enough."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com
Nicklas Backstrom made the key play on Alexander Semin's second goal by giving a hit to make a play. Usually it's taking a hit to make a play, but this time Backstrom, while playing with the puck, knocked Ryan Callahan down at the half-boards before gathering the biscuit again. He sent it down low to Alex Ovechkin, who slotted it to a cutting Semin for the one-timer goal 11:36 into the period. Backstrom needed to protect the puck, so he got physical, and as a result the Caps scored an important goal.
Capitals defenseman John Erskine never does anything flashy, but again on Monday night he did most things quite well. Erskine was arguably the Caps best defenseman in Game 2 and he was again in Game 3 by just playing a sound, defensive game. He played 18:33 and was a plus-1 with two hits and one blocked shots. Oh, and Erskine also baited Sean Avery into a roughing penalty 3:07 into the second period.
Ryan Callahan was that close to tying the game when he rang a rebound attempt off of the left post 11:23 into the second period. The puck dribbled all the way across the crease and the Capitals were able to clear it down the other way. Roughly 10 seconds later, on the other end of the ice, Nicklas Backstrom knocked Callahan off the puck and set up Alexander Semin's second goal.
Nobody told Caps 20-year-old rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov that he was supposed to be nervous in his first playoff game at Madison Square Garden, because he was stellar. The Russian netminder stopped all 33 shots from the Rangers for his first career postseason shutout in only his second career start. His shutout streak is 112:16 and counting. For two games everyone was wondering how the Caps were going to beat Henrik Lundqvist. Now, the bewilderment is on the Rangers' side and they have to be wondering how they can possibly beat Varlamov
Who says Ovechkin is all offense? No. 8 made the defensive play of the game when he raced back to thwart Lauri Korpikoski on a short-handed breakaway 14:28 into the second period. Backstrom couldn't hold the puck in at the blue line and Korpikoski was able to get free on a breakaway. Skating as hard and as fast as he possibly could, Ovechkin raced behind Korpikoski and whipped his stick around the big Ranger, getting his blade to touch only the puck, which went bounding toward left wing boards as both Ovechkin and Korpikoski slid hard into the net.