-- The Colorado Avalanche
are shoving their way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov
is the player doing most of the pushing.
The 23-year-old Russian netminder was brilliant Saturday night, making 41 saves in the Avs' 3-1 victory against the East-leading New York Rangers
, capping a stretch of three road games in four nights with two wins and a shootout loss.
Varlamov, who struggled mightily to start the season, has been a dominant force over the last month. In his last 11 starts dating to Feb. 22, he is 9-2-0 with a 1.35 goals-against average and .956 save percentage, helping the Avalanche climb into the seventh place in the Western Conference.
"He's been unbelievable. He's the main reason for why we are where we are right now," said Gabriel Landeskog
, a Calder Trophy contender whose 21st goal of the season was the game-winner. "He's our main guy right now. He's been so good for us."
Even Varlamov had a hard time picking out his best stop of the night, but the sprawling glove save he made on Brad Richards
late in the third period to preserve a 2-1 lead was one of the biggest. The Rangers were on their fifth unsuccessful power play of the night when Varlamov scrambled to his left to stop Richards.
Of Varlamov's 41 saves, 10 came with the Avalanche shorthanded.
"Varly played excellent tonight. He was great in there," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "You look at the shot discrepancy (42-20) and it's pretty easy to figure out. Five power plays, 10 minutes of killing penalties. I thought 5-on-5, if we could've played the game more on that level, it would've been a little closer as far as that goes. The bottom line is we finished off a great road trip tonight."
The Rangers continue to head in the wrong direction, losing for the fifth time in seven games and for the fifth straight time against an opponent currently in playoff position. The Rangers held a double-digit-point lead for first place in the conference as recently as three weeks ago, but it's now down to two points over the Penguins, who have a game in hand.
returned from a two-game absence due to the flu to make 17 saves, while captain Ryan Callahan
and defenseman Michael Del Zotto
were also back after missing time with injuries.
Despite the loss, the Rangers felt they played their game, but just ran into a hot goalie.
"I think their goalie kind of saved the day for them," Lundqvist said. "Varlamov played really well. I think we played really well. We created a lot of chances, especially in the third. "
"He played well in net," Callahan said. "I thought we played good defensively. We had opportunities. We had 42 shots on net. You have to tip your hat to him, he played well."
The Rangers broke through against Varlamov midway through the first period when Mats Zuccarello
scored his first of the season to make it 1-0. Defenseman Dan Girardi
fired the puck toward the net from the right-wing boards, and Zuccarello was able to deflect it past Varlamov.
That was the Rangers' seventh shot of the game; Varlamov would turn aside the final 35 shots he faced.
Zuccarello's goal was also the first for the Rangers that wasn't from either Richards, Marian Gaborik
or Carl Hagelin
since the third period of Sunday's game against the Islanders. The Rangers' previous seven goals had come from that trio.
The Avalanche drew even 4:18 later when Matt Hunwick
scored a beauty for his third of the season. He took a pass from Peter Mueller
, stepped around defenseman Stu Bickel
, and beat Lundqvist with a backhander to tie the game at 1-1.
"On the road, you want to be able to score the first goal and we weren't able to tonight," Hunwick said. "That was a big goal to get the game tied and get our legs under us with the day off yesterday and no morning skate today. It maybe took a little bit of time for us to get going."
Varlamov kept the game tied with a series of great saves to finish the first period and into the second period, giving Landeskog a chance to put the Avs up 2-1 with 9:51 gone by in the second period.
Defenseman Ryan Wilson
, who had two assists, fired a shot from the left-wing boards that Landeskog, who was unchecked in front of Lundqvist, was able to redirect through the goaltender's legs to make it 2-1. Rangers coach John Tortorella kept the line of Brian Boyle
, Brandon Prust
and Ruslan Fedotenko
glued to the bench for the rest of the period after they allowed the go-ahead goal.
Even the 19-year-old Landeskog was surprised he was so wide-open.
"I was pretty alone there, I guess," Landeskog said. "But it was nothing I was thinking about. I was just trying to get a piece of that. Great shot by Ryan Wilson
there and I was able to sneak it in."
's 21st of the season with 13.1 seconds left in the third period was shot into an empty net to ice the game.
The Avs now hold a two-point lead on the eighth-place Phoenix Coyotes and three-point lead on the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, pending the outcome of Thursday's late games. Sacco is well aware that the teams chasing the Avs all hold anywhere between two and four games in hand, but that's something out of their control.
"We understand that. Right now, it's all about compiling points," Sacco said. "Our players know that. We put ourselves in a playoff position and right now the most important thing is trying to accumulate as many points here down the stretch. The bottom line is if we stay in the playoff picture, those teams still have to win their games."
If Varlamov continues to play like he has over the last month, that shouldn’t be a problem.
"He's really turned it on this time of year," Hunwick said. "I don't know if he's getting in a groove or what, but he's really found a focus. He's really found a nice rhythm in there. Varly's been outstanding down the stretch."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo