May 9, 2009

Pens Begin to Solve Caps Goalie Varlamov

Over the first three games in the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, rookie Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov not only kept his team in the series, but helped them build a 2-1 lead in three one-goal games. He was spectacular in front of the net bailing out a Capitals defense that broke down more often than a Chrysler LeBaron.

On the other hand, he let some cheap goals through. Those goals tended to be slap shots or hard wristers from between the faceoff circles that were slightly deflected and crept through holes in Varmy's pads or under his arms.

The Pens were paying attention. In Game 4, they launched shots any time they had an open shooting lane. It paid off with a 5-3 win, at least three of those goals qualifying as bad.

The issue with Varlamov seems to be that he has excellent reflexes, but he also tends to freeze. He appears to be quickly picking up shots from farther out, but then when the puck dips or is slightly deflected, he is still frozen in the initial position. To borrow a baseball saying, he's swinging at where the ball used to be. The Caps were lucky that many of the attempted shots hit traffic in front and never made it on net.

If my observations reflect the truth, the Caps are in a seriously tough position. The cannot expand their defense out to the faceoff circles because the Pens have players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Ruslan Fedetenko who are agile and can cut through seams in the defense, as they've shown in the series already. Because the Caps have struggled with puck security, they have tended to keep the defensemen held in tighter to the net. They have faced an extraordinary number of odd-man rushes already in the series.

I think they're in a no-win situation. Either they let the Pens bomb away from the high slot out to the faceoff circles, or they risk putting Varlamov in impossible two-on-one and breakaway situations.

The only "good" news for Capitals fans is that the Pens' best defenseman, or at least their best shooting defenseman, ex-Cap Sergei Gonchar is not likely to play in Game 5 today, and possibly not again in the series. Alex Ovechkin took him out with a knee-to-knee hit that looked possibly intentional, but was probably just ambiguous enough to avoid any league discipline.

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