For all of their offensive firepower and gaudy regular seasons, the Washington Capitals have won just two playoff series since 1998. The surprising hero of that first triumph, Semyon Varlamov, became an ex-Cap today. On the verge of becoming a restricted free agent after losing the starting goalie job to Michal Neuvirth last season, Varlamov was traded to Colorado for a first-round selection in the 2012 draft and a second-rounder in 2012 or 2013 depending on how he performs for the Avalanche.
So we’ve seen the last of the 23-year-old Russian in Washington for whom he stole that 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series by holding the New York Rangers to just seven goals in the final six games after replacing faltering veteran Jose Theodore.
Varlamov, who had played in just six regular seasons games, won Game 7 the night after he turned 20. His future seemed as wonderfully bright as those of nearly as young teammates Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom et al.
“It’s nice to be young and not really know what’s going on around you,” said 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, who scored the series-winning goal for the otherwise baby-faced Caps.
However, injuries plagued Varlamov the past two seasons.
He played in just 26 games in 2009-10 while posting a sterling 15-4-6 record with a 2.55 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He was even stingier in the stunning loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference quarters with a 2.41 GAA.
Despite posting a career-best 2.23 GAA and .924 save percentage with an 11-9-5 record in 27 games this season, Varlamov never even got on the ice in the victory over the Rangers in the Eastern quarters nor the subsequent shocking four-game sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Neuvirth, who’s just a month older, had firmly supplanted Varlamov as the Caps’ No. 1 goalie. Braden Holtby, who went 10-2-2 with a shiny 1.79 GAA this year, showed he belongs in the NHL as well and is still just 21, making Varlamov expendable.
From on top of the world to unneeded in just 26 months. That’s the story of Varlamov, whose departure and that of free agent grinder Boyd Gordon leave just nine Caps who played in that Game 7 victory over the Rangers that concluded a comeback from a 3-1 deficit: Ovechkin, Backstrom, forwards Eric Fehr, Brooks Laich, Matt Bradley (a free agent who might well not return) and Alexander Semin (who might be traded this month) and defensemen John Erskine, Mike Green (also a trade possibility) and Tom Poti, whose career is in jeopardy because of a chronic groin injury.
Anyone who would have predicted in 2009 that Erskine would outlast Varlamov in Washington would have been laughed at, but that’s the story of goalies in the nation’s capital.
During their 36 seasons, the Caps have had as many goalies win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best (Jim Carey, 1996 and Olie Kolzig, 2000) as they’ve had goalies who’ve lasted long enough to play in 175 games (Kolzig and Don Beaupre). And now, Varlamov won’t do either, at least for Washington.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.