Prisuta: Caps' goalie frustrating Pens

| Tuesday, May 5, 2009

WASHINGTON — They had to anticipate this from Alexander Ovechkin.

But after two games of an absolutely sizzling series with the Washington Capitals, the Penguins have to be almost dumbfounded over what they've seen from Simeon Varlamov.

The 21-year-old goaltender with no NHL resume to speak of, either in the regular season or playoffs, is turning this Eastern Conference semifinal into a launching pad.

He's backstopped the Caps to a two-games-to-none lead in the wake of Monday night's 4-3 victory in Game 2 at the Verizon Center.

More perplexing for the Penguins is their inability to break him, rattle him or otherwise make Varlamov look vulnerable.

Through the first two games, Ovechkin has been mesmerizing and Sidney Crosby has been relentless. The two top stars in a series dripping with talent have not only lived up to the hype, they've surpassed it.

And the battle level of each team is where it ought to be, which is to say the pushing and shoving was on the rise in Game 2, as, apparently, was everyone's blood pressure. Jabs and pokes and slashes and scrums are now as much a part of the proceedings as 2-on-1s.

You'd expect that, too, given the rivalry and the familiarity.

But goaltending was supposed to be the thing that kept the Capitals from winning a Stanley Cup.

That was the theory before the playoffs began, and that was especially the theory after Jose Theodore was benched after just one game.

It remained plausible even after Varlamov won four of six starts against the New York Rangers in Round 1 because the Rangers are as inept offensively as the Penguins are explosive.

So far, Varlamov apparently hasn't noticed the difference.

Twice, the Penguins have gotten to him early, but they haven't been able to get in his head.

If they don't do so soon, this might be a short series after all.

As much as you have to acknowledge Varlamov's competitiveness and his refusal to give up on the play on the miraculous stick save against Crosby that helped ultimately decide Game 1, that one was lucky.

What Varlamov did in Game 2 was eye-opening.

The Pens took the ice determined to get pucks on net and to get Varlamov moving. They did both late in the first period when Bill Guerin slid a cross-crease pass to Crosby, but Varlamov somehow got his left leg in front of Crosby's point-blank attempt.

As if to prove it was no fluke, Varlamov denied Sergei Gonchar with his glove seconds later, before Varlamov had had a chance to regain his skates and re-set himself.

Later, Varlamov swallowed an Evgeni Malkin attempt (the kid at least proved he's human by looking back over his shoulder, just in case).

Even later, Varlamov denied Malkin again, and then Jordan Staal from the doorstep even though Varlamov no longer had possession of his stick.

Through two games, Varlamov has repeatedly made saves that prevented the Penguins from either re-taking leads or building upon them at critical junctures.

Chris Kunitz tried a shot to Varlamov's head in the closing seconds of Game 2.

Too little, too late.

They'd better come up with an alternative in a hurry.

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