Semyon Varlamov said he isn't one to circle games on the calendar, or look past the next opponent, so it seemed genuine when said last week he wasn't focused on facing his former team.
But Varlamov is certainly cognizant of when he plays his former teams and how he plays against them, as he showed when he said how good it felt to win in Washington DC for the first time since 2013. On Monday night, he's expected to face off against a team he spent eight seasons with, as the Isles take on the Colorado Avalanche. It's a place Varlamov holds in high regard.
"I had a great eight years playing for the Colorado Avalanche," Varlamov said last week. "Colorado is a beautiful state, there are a lot of things to do. What can I say, it's probably one of the best spots in the United States to live, so I really enjoyed it there. The team was good and the organization was really good to me, really supportive. I always think positive about the time I spent in Colorado."
Varlamov went 183-156-38 in 389 contests with the Avalanche and ranks second in franchise history in wins, games played and shutouts (21) - all behind Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy. Varlamov looks back at his time with the Avalanche fondly. After bursting onto the scene in Washington during the 2009 playoffs, Varlamov took on a bonafide starting role in Colorado in 2011, playing 50+ games in five of his seven full seasons, as well as 35 of the 48-games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. They weren't all easy years for an Avs team that underwent a rebuild, but his former teammates appreciate how he helped them set their current foundation.
"He was kind of the backbone of our defense and of our team," Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog told reporters after the team's morning skate on Monday. "Varly and I played together for eight years, and we had some tough years together, but it could have been a lot worse if it wasn't for him. Super competitive guy, works extremely hard, a really good teammate and quality goaltender, that's for sure."
Varlamov's best season came in 2013-14, when he went 41-14-6 with a 2.41 goals-against average, a .927 SV% and two shutouts. He was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy (Tuukka Rask won it that season) and finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting, behind Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Claude Giroux.
"He was dynamite. He should have won the Vezina that year," Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson told reporters on Monday morning. "If he played on the East Coast he probably would have won for sure. He had a dynamite year that year, definitely the Vezina Trophy winner that year. Carried us that year and had a lot of other great years. Always consistent and hard worker. It will be strange to see him in the other net, for sure."
The 31-year-old Russian credited goalie coach Francois Allaire with helping develop his game in the Rockies, as well as the tutelage of Head Coach - and Hall of Fame netminder - Patrick Roy.
"Patrick was really good. He really helped me to improve my game," Varlamov said last week. "He was great to me. He was a great person and I appreciated everything he did for me. And Francois Allaire, Patrick brought Francois Allaire in and he worked with me for four years. Four critical years with Francois Allaire and three years with Patrick, I learned a lot of things from those two guys."
Varlamov went 20-19-9 in his final season in Colorado, which ultimately ended with him backing up Phillip Grubauer during the Avs second-round playoff run. The veteran goalie was an Islanders target and signed a four-year deal with the team over the summer. Varlamov was open about his willingness to learn from Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn and Goaltending Coach Piero Greco, especially after what the duo did for Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner - who posted career-years en route to the Jennings Trophy.
So far, so good for Varlamov, who is 14-5-3 with a 2.40 GAA and a .920 SV% - his best combined numbers since the 2013-15 stretch. The Russian goalie is ninth in the NHL in goals-against average, 11th in save percentage and has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his last 12 starts. He's 3-2-1 in his last six starts, with wins in Boston, in Washington and against Minnesota.
Varlamov is slated to make his fifth-straight start after alternating with Greiss through the first 33 games of the season.
Head Coach Barry Trotz said he's seen growth in Varlamov's game since the start of the year.
"He's a real, true pro and he's made adjustments," Trotz said back in mid-December. "You can see it in the way he's moving now. He's always been very athletic, very explosive, but there's times now where he's a little more patient and waits for things to happen. I just think he's settled in quite well, a few things. He's not as impatient."
Video: NYI@BOS: Varlamov robs Bjork with glove save
"I think that's all settling in. I know when you come to a new club you want to impress so hard that maybe you become a little impatient and it probably works against you," Trotz added. "He's settled in with the group really well and I think the way he plays for us, he's getting used to the way we play in front of him. He's been a really nice fit."
Varlamov said that he and his family have settled into life on Long Island off the ice as well.
"It's been great so far. I still like it a lot. Long Island is a beautiful place to live. My family loves it here," Varlamov said in December. "I definitely feel more comfortable with the team right now. We have a really good group of guys, great guys, so I feel comfortable. I love it."
Varlamov said he still keeps in touch with some of his former teammates like Johnson, Nikita Zadorov and Vladislav Kamenev, who are happy to see him starting off well on Long Island. It'll undoubtedly be a little strange for Varlamov to play against his former teammates, but he's looking to approach it the same as every other game - and no further ahead.