ARLINGTON, Va. – Simeon Varlamov figures if people are saying his name more often, they might as well get it right.
“I will change the spelling,” the Washington Capitals goaltender, speaking through an interpreter, said Thursday after practice. “And I also want to tell you guys to accent it properly. It’s not ‘SIM-e-un.’ It’s ‘Sim-YOHN.”‘
Therefore, at his request, the hottest rookie netminder in the NHL playoffs will list as Simyon Varlamov on the roster in next season’s Capitals media guide. No change in the last name, even though people have been getting that wrong, too. (It’s var-LAHM-ov.)
At least his growing list of nicknames – “Varly,” “Czar-lamov,” “From Russia With Glove” – are easily manageable for his American teammates, coaches and fans. Any and all of them will likely be used as the Capitals, having ousted the New York Rangers, take on the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Saturday.
“His game’s grown more than I would have thought,” said Capitals goalie coach Dave Prior.
Taking over from inconsistent veteran Jose Theodore after Game 1 against the Rangers, Varlamov allowed only seven goals in six games – including two shutouts – as the Capitals won the seven-game series to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
Varlamov, who turned 21 Monday, spent most of the season with the Capitals’ AHL team in Hershey, Pa. His mask has “Hershey Bears” emblazoned on one side and a Capitals logo on the other. He got his chance as a backup in Washington after Brent Johnson was injured, made his NHL debut on Dec. 13 and went 4-0-1 in six regular season appearances.
His rise draws parallels to Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Like Varlamov, Dryden had played in only six regular season NHL games before becoming a playoff star, leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup title in 1971 at the age of 23.
Sporting the tender sprouts of a playoff beard, Varlamov demonstrated a levelheaded composure and sense of humour that one would hardly expect from a young face in such a big spotlight as he met with reporters. Although he is learning English, his answers were interpreted by a Russian reporter who covers the Capitals.
How does it feel to have made it past that first round?
“They say in Russia that a mountain falls off your shoulders. … But I can say that one mountain’s fallen off and an even bigger one has fallen on them.”
But surely there must be a sense of accomplishment?
“I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything because I’m in the same situation as the rest of the guys. We’re only past the first opponent in the playoffs. I don’t feel any particular pressure. I’m just going to prepare the same way I did before.”
How do his parents follow his games?
“As strange as it sounds, we do own a TV in Russia,” he deadpanned. “They get up at 3 a.m. to watch the games.”
Other than winning Game 7 the night after his birthday, was there any big celebration for turning 21?
“I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t really want to throw any kind of a birthday party American-style because I didn’t have the time and I didn’t want to throw myself off, so I didn’t do anything special.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau, who made the audacious decision to make the goalie switch, doesn’t want to throw Varlamov off either. The coach jokes that he hasn’t spoken to the rookie since Game 1 to keep from upsetting the psychological apple cart.
With four other Russians on the team, including reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin, Varlamov is far from lonely. Also, there’s Prior, who bought Varlamov an electronic English-Russian translator earlier this season.
“Sometimes he wouldn’t understand,” Prior said. “And I couldn’t get him comfortable trying to make me understand.”