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Varly Coming Into His Own

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
In the seven seasons since Patrick Roy skated off the ice for the last time, the Colorado Avalanche have searched for a confident young goaltender who could provide stability between the pipes.

Among those who have passed through the turnstile in the crease are David Aebischer, Peter Budaj, Jose Theodore, Craig Anderson and Brian Elliott.

The latest candidate to step into the spotlight is Semyon Varlamov, a 23-year-old who happened to be a long-distance Avalanche fan while growing up in his native Russia.

“I liked the Avalanche because of a lot of guys – Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Claude Lemieux,” Varlamov said. “They had some great players and great teams. Patrick was the first guy who started to play the butterfly style. I liked the way he played the game.”
Varly stopped 135 of 144 shots in his first four starts for the surging Avs and won three games during the team's historic 5-0 road trip.

While it’s too early to christen Varlamov as St. Varly, the fourth-year pro certainly is making a great first impression on his coaches, teammates and Avalanche fans. Varlamov stopped 135 of 144 shots in his first four starts for Colorado and won three games during the team’s historic 5-0 road trip that ended Monday with a victory in Toronto.

“He’s a quietly confident-type of kid,” Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. “He doesn’t get rattled easily. He’s very confident in his abilities.”

After spending his first three NHL seasons as a part-time starter for the Washington Capitals, Varlamov was acquired by Colorado on July 1 for a first-round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft and a conditional second-round choice in 2012 or 2013.

Not only would Varlamov get to wear the sweater he loved as a youth, but he would have an opportunity for playing time more commensurate with his statistics. In 27 games with the Capitals in 2010-11, he finished fourth in the NHL in goals-against average (2.23) and sixth in save percentage (.924).

“I was so excited when I was traded to Colorado,” he said. “Right now, I feel comfortable here.”

At 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, Varlamov doesn’t often let opponents get comfortable when they’re looking for an opening. Using a hybrid butterfly-upright style, Varlamov excels at staying square to the puck to effectively minimize shooting angles. He also has great mobility for his size, allowing him to make scrambling saves when the puck pinballs around the crease.

“People in our organization felt pretty good about this young goalie and felt he could be a good one for a long time,” Sacco said. “So far, he’s played the way we’ve expected.”

Varlamov’s hot start might come as a surprise to those who based expectations on preseason scoring summaries. He gave up nine goals in three games while trying to find a rhythm while playing with several minor-league prospects in front of him.

“We didn’t make his job very easy (in the preseason),” Sacco said. “He was working hard, working on his game. Once the regular season kicked in, the team played very well in front of him. We got a glimpse of what we thought he could do.”

With Varlamov off to a strong start, Sacco has two excellent goaltending options to choose from each night. The Avalanche also signed veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere during the offseason; Giguere led the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup title in 2007 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy after the Ducks fell one game short of the Cup in 2003.

“We’re certainly going to see J.S. this year,” Sacco said. “He’s going to be a guy we need to play well when called upon. I usually play it on a game-by-game basis. Varly’s put himself in a position where he’s going to be counted on quite a bit.”

While he finds a comfort zone with the Avs, Varlamov is also adapting to his new surroundings in Denver. He should have a better pulse on the city by the time his mom, dad and sister visit from Russia.

“It’s going to be a new experience for my family,” Varlamov said. “They have never been in Colorado. They were in Washington and stayed in Virginia. They are excited to see something new and see how people live in Colorado – and excited to see me on the ice as a member of the Avalanche.”

It has been an emotional six weeks for Varlamov. The excitement of a fresh start in Colorado was tempered when 35 players, coaches and team officials from the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team in Russia were killed in a plane crash on Sept. 7. Varlamov joined Lokomotiv’s minor-league system as a 16-year-old in 2004 and played for the pro team from 2006-08.

“It's been a tough time for everyone in Yaroslavl and Russia,” he said. “It was my team for eight years and I knew everyone. I'm sad. It's a big loss for me and everybody.”

The ice has provided an outlet for Varlamov, who has a strong support group in Colorado. Several of his current teammates played with members of the Lokomotiv team, including former Avs Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins.

“What happened was such a tragedy, but the best thing for him personally was to come back here and surround himself with his teammates and get back to playing again,” Sacco said. “I think that helped take his mind off of what happened. It makes it easier to deal with.”

One thing is certain as Varlamov gains traction in Colorado: He is doing his fallen countrymen proud.

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