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Speak rarely and carry a big stick

by Dan Rosen
NEW YORK -- With a small sample of games and an obvious language barrier, even Washington coach Bruce Boudreau has more questions than answers about Russian rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov.

"Seven games, that's how well I know him," Boudreau said Tuesday after the Caps' optional practice at Madison Square Garden. "I don't know if he's mature beyond his years because my level of communication with him is patting him on the butt and saying 'Good game,' or 'Go get 'em.' "

Boudreau hasn't had to say much more to Varlamov, who has quickly become the darling of this best-of-7 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal round series against the New York Rangers.

A surprise starter in Game 2, Varlamov will take a shutout streak of 112:16 into Game 4 Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN). He has stopped the last 55 shots the Rangers have taken and has allowed only one goal, which came 7:44 into Game 2 off Ryan Callahan's stick.

The Rangers lead the series, 2-1, but they don't appear to have the massive edge in net anymore, despite still having All-Star Henrik Lundqvist as their goalie.

"I heard from some guys that he was really good last year in the Russian (Elite) League," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said of Varlamov, who did not practice Tuesday and was unavailable for comment. "He took his own team (Yaroslavl) to the finals, so when I heard that and saw the game (Monday) I was not as surprised."

Varlamov and Backstrom will forever be linked as the Caps' two first-round picks in the 2006 Entry Draft. They were each marvelous Monday night to help the Caps slice the series deficit in half. Varlamov stopped all 33 shots and Backstrom had three assists.

But the 20-year-old Russian, who played in only five regular-season games with the Capitals and is experiencing his first hockey season in North America, is all the rage now, especially after surviving his first Sean Avery test Monday night.

Avery, as he usually does, stood right in front of the goalie on most every shift and at the end of the game he tried to bait Varlamov, who stayed composed even when Avery took a swipe at him to pick up a 10-minute misconduct penalty on top of the two-minute goaltender interference minor he was already being sent to the box for.

"I don't know if he knows Avery well enough to know that is his shtick," Boudreau said. "If you watched at the end of the thing, he took off his mask and he wasn't paying any attention to it. I think he's a very focused young man."

Varlamov, who turns 21 next Monday, spent most of this season with the Hershey Bears, the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate, compiling a 19-7-1 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He even has the Bears logo on half of his helmet with the Caps logo on the other half.

"I had seen him play in Hershey a few games this year and I had seen him play for us and played really well for us, so I had the comfortability that he would be OK," Boudreau said when asked why he had so much confidence in turning to Varlamov for Game 2, arguably the most important coaching decision of his NHL career. "We're talking two games, but I had a lot of faith in him."

A lot of that faith has to do with Varlamov's past. He posted a 1.62 goals-against average and five shutouts in 16 playoff games last year in the Russian Elite League, and was 5-1 with a 1.51 GAA and two shutouts for Russia at the 2007 World Junior Championship.

"Goalies have to be able to block it out and not let things bother them," Boudreau said. "I don't think a lot bothers this young man."

Caps defenseman Brian Pothier told that he's still scratching his head, trying to figure out why nothing seems to bother Varlamov.

"He's a 20-year-old kid and he gets put in these situations that are very difficult and he is just not fazed whatsoever," he said. "It must be something in that Russian water. All these Russian guys, they have no pulse in pressure situations. He's the same way."

Pothier said the language barrier is not an issue with Varlamov because of how simple the young goalie keeps his game.

"My communication level with him is either, 'Play it,' or 'Leave it,' one or the other," Pothier said. "He simplifies his game and if he doesn't think he's going to get to the puck he stays in the net. Other than that we work real hard not to screen him."

Varlamov's English is good enough that he can yell words like "move" or "screen" at his defensemen so they know to get out of the way. Other than that, he doesn't have to say anything as long as he keeps frustrating the Rangers.

"He's young, talented, solid and calm," Backstrom said. "He showed it (Monday) night that he's a good goalie."

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