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Games on back-to-back days will test Varlamov's conditioning, resolve

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The playoffs are a grind.  Game after game, bodies dropping everywhere as the hits pile up and the puck flies around.  It’s bad enough with the relentless every-other-day there's a game schedule, but we’re coming up on an interesting point of the series.  Due to an arena scheduling conflict, Games 4 and 5 will be on back to back nights on Friday and Saturday, a rarity for the NHL, though not uncommon at all in the minor league levels.  Also, keep in mind both teams will have to make the short trek from Pittsburgh to Washington as well.  Another wrench in the players' routines.

Hockey players are a tough bunch and they’ll manage.  But there’s one guy who this could affect more than anyone else, and that’s the Caps phenom rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov.

From the very beginning, Varlamov has been seen as a talented, if unrefined goalie who needed to improve his durability, as this Washington Post recap from his first NHL game attests.

Also from Japers Rink, check out this comment from that blog’s moderater back on January 30th:

 

No doubt his conditioning is his main issue right now, which isn’t a good issue to have in the NHL’s second season

 

Although a lot has changed since Jan 30th, hopefully for Penguins fans this proves to be prophetic.  There’s no doubt that Varlamov is riding a wave of sensational goaltending right now, pretty much everything he’s seeing, he’s stopping.  But he’s been busy; the Pens have averaged 38 shots a game, a tremendous workload for any goaltender, let alone a barely 21 year old rookie that has more NHL playoff experience than he does in the regular season.  Hot goalies can be almost unbeatable, but everyone’s human and the rise and fall of a goaltender can be as sudden as any position in sports.

Varlamov played in just 33 regular season games (split between Hershey in the AHL and Washington) so you could either look at it that he could be fresh or maybe he didn’t receive too much of a workload because he couldn’t handle it.  Since Varly took the reigns from Jose Theodore on April 18th, the young Russian has played in 9 intense NHL playoff games in just 19 days, about to become 11 games in 22 days after Saturday’s game is finished.

I’m not trying to suggest that the wheels are about to fall off and the Pens are about to light this kid up, but Varlamov’s in untested waters.  Varlamov uses a very athletic style to scramble around the net and even when out of position can rely on his reflexes and natural ability to make some unreal saves.  Will all these games wear him down a little physically?  From a mental standpoint can he keep his focus at it’s best levels throughout all the rubber that Pittsburgh is throwing at him?  I don’t even think the Caps are even sure quite how he’s going to respond, though with recent performances they surely have reason to be confident.

Varlamov won’t be the only goalie playing back-to-back, so I think with good reason the same questions can be posed to Marc-Andre Fleury.  Fleury though has proven his mettle taking the Penguins to a Stanley Cup final last season.  Also the heavy workload is nothing new to Fleury, as he played in 47 of the Pens final 50 games of the regular season.  MAF also has played 5 times this season on back-to-back days situation.  Of course that doesn’t have the intensity of a playoff series, but he’s at least going into this situation knowing what he’s facing and how to prepare for it.  Varlamov doesn’t have such experience to draw off of, but so far that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the top goaltenders in the playoffs.