Washington Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov stopped 29 of 31 shots, many of them on quality chances including a great one on Ilya Kovalchuk from point blank range in the first period, to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory in Atlanta and move the Caps within one point of clinching second place in the Eastern Conference. Varlamov, who will not turn 21 until April 27th, is now 4-0-1 on the season with a .918 save percentage. Tonight he allowed an inconsistent Capitals performance to be turned into the team’s first win in Phillips Arena in three tries this season. The Caps won the season series from Altanta, 4-2, and are now 15-7 in Southeast Division contests. Washington’s final two games are in Tampa on Thursday (Caps are 5-0 vs. the Lightning) and in Florida on Saturday (Caps are 3-2 vs. the Panthers). Either one Caps point or one missed Devils point will lock up second place for Washington and mean that they will likely face Montreal or the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start next week.
With goalie Brent Johnson still out recovering from hip surgery, Varlamov’s performance tonight had to make Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee feel pretty confident that the young netminder could come in and handle things in a playoff series, if necessary. But let’s face it, the Caps are going to ride #1 goalie Jose Theodore as much as possible in this post season.
Also very good for the Caps tonight was their penalty killing, which stopped all six Thrasher power plays despite defenseman Tom Poti (sore groin) being out of the lineup. The sore groin explains a good portion of the reason why #3 seems to have been struggling lately. To successfully kill penalties everything starts with your goalie, at least that is what Rod Langway used to tell me, and tonight Varlamov did his part and the shorthanded Cap skaters did a superb job as well clogging the passing lanes, blocking shots, and making decent clears. Last time Washington was in Atlanta the Thrashers scored on their first three power play chances but they would get the donut hole on Tuesday.
Sergei Fedorov had the insurance goal tonight thanks to Alexander Ovechkin (2 assists) crashing the net but he took three penalties, allowed Marty Reasoner to deflect Tobias Enstrom’s point blast by Varlamov in the second period, and was only four and nine on face-offs. #91 still does not look 100% healthy to me.
Tomas Fleischmann’s first goal was the result of a lucky bounce off of the Thrashers but as Boudreau said last Friday night, when you are playing well you make your own breaks. #14 is rounding into form right now with his 19th goal of the season, he also added an assist, and was +2 for the evening. He is also getting better at killing penalties. Could he be this year’s John Druce?
Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, Brian Pothier, and John Erskine were all also +2 for the game.
The Thrashers first goal was a colossal defensive breakdown as Milan Jurcina fumbled the puck in his skates while the rest of the Caps vacated the center of the ice leaving Varlamov to try and fend off Ron Hainsey and Rich Peverley on his own (Peverley scored on a nice backhand fake but he had all day to make the move). These type of breakdowns must be eliminated when the post season begins.
I’m not sure who picked the stars in Atlanta tonight but I don’t know what game he or she was watching, Varlamov was the clear #1 star in my book.
Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, who had two assists in Pittsburgh’s 6-4 win over Tampa tonight, still leads #8 by two points with two games to go in the scoring race. A tie between the two at the end of the year would result in the Art Ross Trophy for the Great #8 since he has more goals (55 to 34). Ovechkin will get the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals and also should win the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) but Alex would trade all of these trophies for the Stanley Cup.
The Caps are only one point away from clinching second place because Martin Brodeur turned in another subpar performance on Tuesday giving up four goals on 18 shots while Martin Gerber (who was also great against the Caps this season) stopped 47 of 48 shots to lead the Leafs to a 4-1 victory at The Rock. Brodeur, since setting the record for most wins by an NHL goalie a couple of weeks back, has really struggled lately. For once I say let the Leafs fans party on Yonge Street after this one as they did Washington a huge favor.
Up I-95 in Philadelphia on Tuesday night the Flyers dealt the Florida Panthers a major blow to their playoff chances with a 2-1 victory. Anyone who saw the highlights of this one knows that Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made some very good saves in the contest, gave up a bad goal to Jeff Carter to cost his team the game. The Panthers are two points behind the Rangers and three points behind the Canadiens with two games to go. Florida is at Atlanta on Thursday and then host Washington on Saturday. Montreal is at Boston on Thursday and then host the Penguins on Saturday while the Rangers host the Flyers on Thursday and then go to Philly on Sunday. I don’t see Florida getting in the post season and GM Jacques Martin’s decision to not move impending free agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester looks even worse now.
The Flyers have clinched a playoff berth but likely can’t win the Atlantic Division (Devils need one point to clinch) so they have to be focused on trying to beat out the Penguins and the streaking Hurricanes for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Carolina won their ninth game in a row (thumped the Islanders 9-0) but only have two games left while the Flyers have three (they have the Islanders on Saturday to go with the two Ranger games).
That is it for now as I’m off to watch Calgary and Vancouver. A Flames win in regulation clinches the Northwest Division title for them and the #3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Canucks lead 1-0 midway through the 2nd period.