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"We took the champs to a Game 7. We're in the mix." —CAPITALS COACH BRUCE BOUDREAU
LAST SEASON 50-24-8 (2nd in East); lost in second round to Pittsburgh
KEY ADDITIONS RW Mike Knuble, C Brendan Morrison
KEY LOSSES LW Donald Brashear, C Sergei Fedorov, G Brent Johnson, C Viktor Kozlov
Despite his sudden and glittering turn in net last spring, goalie Semyon Varlamov isn't being promised a major share of playing time just yet. The 21-year-old rookie will have to win the starting job from 12-season veteran José Théodore, whom he relieved in the playoffs. "[Varlamov's] only done it for 13 games," coach Bruce Boudreau says. "Théodore has earned the respect and the right to be the Number 1. [The job] is his to lose."
After a shaky stretch to close the regular season—in his last 10 starts Théodore had a 3.21 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage—the former Vezina Trophy winner was yanked after a 4--3 Game 1 loss to the Rangers. Varlamov, who had played in only six NHL games, showed poise as Washington came from two games down to take the series in seven games. He continued to play effectively until imploding in Game 7 against the Penguins, when he surrendered four goals in the first 22 minutes.
"We've seen how people can come in and have a great emotional run for a month, and then they get the world and they don't follow through on that," Boudreau says of not rushing Varlamov into the lineup.
The muddled situation in goal—another young netminder, AHL playoff MVP Michal Neuvirth, could also be an option—is the only question on a team that has 18 of its top 20 scorers returning. To replace the other two, KHL-bound Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, G.M. George McPhee added crease monkey Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison, smart veteran scorers who add another dimension to a lethal attack. Knuble, who joins Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström on Washington's top line, will feast on leftovers from Ovechkin's 500-plus shots, and his grinding style should complement the ultraskilled play of his linemates.