Rookie Goalie Simeon Varlamov won his NHL debut tonight in the hallowed Montreal Forum in spectacular fashion stopping 32 of 33 shots as the Washington Capitals beat the Canadiens, 2-1, on Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada. Varlamov, who was in San Antonio Friday morning before being summoned to DC when Jose Theodore went down in the morning skate, got the call when fellow Cap goalie Brent Johnson’s hip was too sore for Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to risk. The young goalie delivered for his head coach who said on Friday night that he would not hesitate to play the young Russian netminder should Johnny not be 100 percent. What a debut for #40 as the Caps goalie of the future was outstanding flashing his great glove hand on numerous occasions and making several incredible saves en route to the game’s number one star. His composure was outstanding and this is no surprise considering how calm and focused he seemed to be when I spoke with him after Friday night’s game against Ottawa and from what I’ve heard about him from people in the hockey world.
Michael Nylander, who has really struggled for Washington, got the game winner with just over two minutes left on a play where the small forward battled in front of the net and banked the puck in off of Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak while falling down. This was #92’s first goal (3rd of the season) since October 16th and could not have come at a better time because the Habs were really flying and determined to win after losing on Thursday night to Olie “the Goalie” Kolzig and the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Forum. Nylander, who has been blasted on the Caps message boards and is making $5.5M this season and next, and his linemates Viktor Kozlov and Alexandre Giroux got some extra ice time with Sergei Fedorov missing the 3rd period due to injury (his status is TBD but it could be the ankle again) and they were creating opportunities before finally cashing in late in the contest.
For the Caps, it was clear that Russians Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Fedorov (who turned 39 today), and Kozlov really wanted to win in their fellow countrymen’s debut and they skated hard but Montreal is a very good team and on the night I gave the Habs the edge in overall play, primarily because the Caps took several penalties in the second period that gave Montreal three power plays and in the third period they controlled the puck and dominated the shot total, 14-6. But Varlamov and the Caps penalty killers delivered (Montreal’s only goal came on a four on four situation) and once again another young draft pick up from Hershey played well and gave Capitals hockey fans more glimpses of a very bright future.
For Washington, this was a big win not only because it was Varlamov’s debut but because they had struggled on the second half of back to back games going 1-3-1 in those affairs heading into tonight’s contest. Also, it was a tough road game and with Carolina losing to the New York Rangers in a shootout tonight, 3-2, the Caps are now 18-10-3 and lead both the Hurricanes and hot Florida Panthers by eight points in the Southeast Division. Florida has two games in hand and Carolina has one game in hand on Washington.
The Caps next game is Tuesday night on Long Island against the New York Islanders.
Notes: Apparently defensemen Tyler Sloan was injured in the game as well playing only 13:22 and there is no word on his status yet. Ovechkin assisted on Nicklas Backstrom’s first period power play goal and now has 32 points (15G, 17A) in his last 18 games. Montreal outshot the Caps 33-26. The Caps won the face-off battle handily, 36-20. Backstrom only played 13:45 and I did not see him return after being called for interference in the third period so he could be hurt as well. Just when this team was starting to get a little bit healthy it appears the injury bug strikes again. When Boudreau was asked about the injuries after the game he said “I’m afraid to go in there” referring to the locker room and the possibility of hearing bad news on the team’s health.