Washington Capitals goalie Simeon Varlamov had all of six NHL games experience when he was tapped by coach Bruce Boudreau to play Game 2 of the Capitals' first-round series against the New York Rangers.
Varlamov helped the Capitals win four of the next six games, allowing only seven goals and pitching two shutouts. He started strong in the second round, beating Pittsburgh twice at home while allowing only five goals, including Sidney Crosby's Game 2 hat trick. That allowed the Capitals to set a franchise record with five-straight playoff victories.
But it's been rough sledding since then. Heading into Monday night's critical Game 6, the Penguins had reeled off three-straight victories, including two in overtime in which Washington defensemen deflected pucks past Varlamov. Varlamov was 6-4 with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He was 5-2 with a .950 save percentage and 1.29 GAA through Game 1, a 3-2 Washington victory.
But he and the Caps survived in overtime, 5-4, forcing Game 7 in Washington Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS).
Varlamov, 21, who helped his Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team reach the final of the Russian league playoffs last season, must again rise to the challenge, but he already has made a strong impression in the hockey world, notably with former Russian great Vladislav Tretiak.
"I understand it very well. I had such a situation in 1970 at the World Championship in Stockholm," Tretiak said. "We were playing against Sweden and our goalie got injured in the second period. The coach told me I was in, which is a very difficult situation because I wasn't expecting it. I was calmly and peacefully sitting there and it was like someone threw me in the ocean and said 'swim.'
"But the ocean isn't calm. It has big waves. I had only a few short minutes to get physically and psychologically into the game. For goalies, this is a very difficult position to be put in, especially for Varlamov, who has never played in the NHL playoffs. Especially, the (ramifications:) How will his career unfold? Would he continue to play or would this be the end of it? I understand his situation very well."
Tretiak was only 18 when he joined the Russian National Team, only 19 when he won his first Olympic gold medal and 20 when he starred in the Summit Series, so he has a unique understanding of the pressure on Varlamov.
"When you are young, you get a lot of attention when you are in this position," Tretiak said. "Varlamov was thrown in and the whole world focused on him. It's unusual for goalies to get this opportunity at this age.
"I was asked to the national team when I was 18 and I was extremely elated, happy and proud because at this age, very few goalies are allowed to play at these levels. Goalies are considered at their best at 25 and older. Goalies need more games under their belt.
"There are some differences in our experiences. I won World Championships against several countries, not a few games against one or two teams. Also, Varlamov is representing one city and I had to play for the whole country."
Tretiak said he first saw Varlamov last season during the Russian league season.
"I was very happy when I saw him succeed because we don't have a lot of goalies coming out of the system, right now," Tretiak said. "So, when I saw him with Lokomotiv, I was very excited that a young, talented goalie was emerging. Most of the goalies in the KHL are international goalies, not products of Russia. Simeon was asked to play for the national team, but he broke his leg and had to go back home."
Tretiak was asked if he thought the Penguins have found "the answer" to Varlamov, perhaps spotted a weakness in his game. True to form, Tretiak was direct.
"I didn't see all the games in full because I was with our national team at the World Championships in Zurich but I can tell you, when a team loses three games in a row, it's not the goalie."
Tretiak projects a long and illustrious career for Varlamov, whom he believes is the real thing.
"He has a wonderful future," Tretiak said. "The Russian Federation is thinking of inviting him to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, as a candidate. He has a very good future. At this young age, he has already shown he can play at this high level. Next season, he will have a lot of experience, not just in terms of games but the psychological experience and that is a big factor."