In that instant, when the heel of his goalie stick stopped the puck that came off Sidney Crosby's blade right on the goal line, the Washington Capitals' 21-year-old Russian rookie sensation became a star. Whether he can keep it up remains to be seen, but with 1:59 to play in the second period of the biggest game of his career, Varlamov made the biggest save of his life on the best opposing player he's ever faced.
"I'd say yes, it was one of the best, especially when you consider the kind of game it was, the NHL playoffs," Varlamov said through a Russian reporter acting as his interpreter after Washington's 3-2 series-opening win over Pittsburgh. "The way the game went it was a very important save because the score was 2-2 and if they score the third goal you know how it would go on."
Crosby, who beat Varlamov with a wrist shot from between the circles just 4:09 into the game, couldn't get the third goal despite thinking he had an open net to shoot on as Varlamov appeared stuck at the left post.
Instead, Varlamov reached back with his stick and got it down on the goal line to stone a stunned Crosby, who asked the officials to check to make sure the puck did not cross the line.
"You don't want to waste those opportunities," Crosby said. "You end up losing the game, 3-2, and you don't want to look back and say, 'What if?' "
That's exactly what No. 87 was doing afterwards because Tomas Fleischmann got that third goal 1:46 into the third period and Varlamov came up with 13 more saves in the final 20 minutes to preserve the win.
Varlamov made a career-high 34 saves, but only one truly mattered.
"It was unbelievable," Washington center David Steckel said. "That was kind of a game-changing play. That was huge for us. It turned us around. He was beaten straight-up and didn't give up and that's a great attribute to have as a player. It's a credit to him."
Only 5:07 before making his brilliant stick save on Crosby, Varlamov let in a goal he most definitely would like to have back. He seemed to just miss an average point shot from Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton at 12:54 of the second period.
Varlamov had his glove out, but the puck got past him anyway as the Penguins drew even, 2-2.
"That goal was just my mistake, that's all," Varlamov admitted.
It could have been a backbreaker, but it wasn't. Varlamov showed the poise of a veteran, and the skill of an All-Star, to avoid letting Eaton's goal get to him. If it had, there's probably no way he makes that save on Crosby.
"The first goal (Crosby's goal) could have rattled a 21-year-old goalie and the second goal could have killed a 21-year-old goalie," Varlamov said, "but this is the playoffs and you can't really dwell on your mistakes. You have to forget about them quickly."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org