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Breaking down the goalies: Semyon Varlamov

With the Penguins and Islanders getting ready to square off in the postseason, we’re bringing in an expert to discuss the net-minders.

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

This is a guest post written by former professional hockey player and current goalie coach Rob Gherson. His background and links to follow his work can be found at the end of this article.

Yesterday we broke down Tristan Jarry, now we dive into the Islanders’ net-minder.

Semyon Varlamov had one of the best save percentages in the NHL this year and plays for a team that’s been well known for its stingy defence since Barry Trotz became their head coach. But, both of the past two years, they’ve been somewhere around the middle of the pack for high danger chances against (hockey reference) 23rd a year ago and 15th this year. Semyon Varlamov has been a big beneficiary of the Islanders improved defence, but has also given back, posting the best save percentage in the league among starters this year as well as leading the league in Goals Saved Above Average, which takes into account where shots came from and what the league average save percentage is on shots from those areas. He’s a very good goalie, who had a great season and he should definitely be in the conversation for the Vezina trophy this year.

Everyone can look at stats and to be honest, while, I highly respect the analytics people and try to understand them the best I can, it’s not my strength and it’s not the reason anybody would want me to write an article for them. I’m a former goalie and current goalie coach, so my strength is analyzing goaltenders from a technical perspective. So that’s what I’m going to do and hopefully, I can give you some things to watch for as your Penguins try to solve the Islanders and Varlamov for the next 7 games or less.

A lot of modern Russian goalies are incredibly athletic, think Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sergei Bobrovsky. They move extremely well and are able to make acrobatic saves using their flexibility and speed to bail their teammates (and sometimes themselves) out. Varlamov is definitely in that category. He moves extremely well and can come up with some unbelievable saves at times. I wouldn’t call this acrobatic, but this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. He has no business making this save. It comes from a great ability to read the stick and predict the puck’s trajectory, not giving up, and of course, a bit of luck.

One thing that Varlamov does that sets him apart from some of the other athletic goalies, I’m thinking Bobrovsky more than Vasilevskiy, is his ability to move long distances in the crease without opening up his five hole too much. When you watch the next two videos, look at how quickly and solidly he closes the five hole as he moves. For most goalies, there’s a trade off on plays like this, you get their quickly or you get there with no holes. Varlamov has the ability to do both a lot of the time, so getting him to move laterally to open up the five hole isn’t a great way to try to score on him.

Both of those saves are much harder than Varlamov makes them look. He’s legitimately a top goalie in the league, playing behind a very good team system, so, how can Pittsburgh beat him? There are a few things I’ve noticed that they could take advantage of.

First, Varlamov tends to have a tough time controlling rebounds and covering loose pucks, so the old time playoff hockey solution of getting pucks to the net and crashing the net will be important against him.

Neither of these plays end up as goals, and to be honest, the first one with the big rebound, may be by design, as it goes right to his own player, but, it was also just a few feet away from an opponent in overtime and as I watched games, it was a trend that I noticed. His stick doesn’t move much from his five hole, so he relies on spitting rebounds past the first wave of opponents crashing the net and having his defence clear anything else.

Remember the goal I showed you where Jarry got caught leaning into his post (RVH) right as a pass was made back door? That play, although very difficult to pull off, is probably available against Varlamov too. He doesn’t RVH as much as a lot of goalies, but this goal below is almost identical to the one Jarry allowed on a similar play, except Varlamov looks to be on his way into a VH as the pass is made. The key is looking for the goalie to lean into the post and passing the puck right as you see it. Could be a good play in a 5 on 3 situation.

Finally, in breakaway, or plays when the shooter is all alone with Varlamov, there are a few options to beat him. For right hand shots, high glove, right under the cuff of his glove, and for left handed shots, just above his pad, below his blocker when he goes down. None of these are there when you look at him in his stance, but, they are all available if you time it right. Here, I’ll show you.

As he goes down his glove drops, so you can roof it on him like Nicklas Backstrom does here.

If you’re looking for this, a lefty has to shoot it early, while a right handed shot would benefit from waiting a little bit longer as they can get it up quicker over his glove.

To beat him under the cuff of his glove, as a right handed shot, you have to shoot it before he goes down and drops his glove. David Pastrňák shows you how here.

Because he holds his glove so high, if you shoot it quickly right under the cuff of the glove you can beat him.

Finally, for the lefties, when he butterflies, his hands come in towards his body and his right elbow stays up and bent, which opens a hole above the pad under the blocker. Shoot it before you get too close to get it above his pad. Watch Evgeny Kuznetsov in this video and do what he does.

None of these plays will work every time, and as we all know, a hot goalie can steal a series, but if I was pre-scouting for either of these teams, this is how I’d approach it.

About the Author

Rob Gherson is a former professional goaltender from Toronto. He was drafted in 2002 by the Washington Capitals and played 5 years of pro hockey in various organizations. He won the Calder Cup in 2008 with the Chicago Wolves, beating the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in the finals. While playing in the OHL, he started the 2002 CHL All Star game representing the OHL Western Conference against the QMJHL Dilio Conference, sharing co-MVP honors with Marc-Andre Fleury. He is currently a goalie coach in Toronto and recently founded Conscious Goaltending, a company with the goal of simplifying and improving goaltending knowledge across the hockey universe from the hardcore goalie nerd to the rookie shooter.

He can be found on social media:

Twitter: @goalie_school

Instagram: @consciousgoaltending

Facebook: Conscious Goaltending