DENVER – A year ago, Semyon Varlamov was a fledgling goaltender on a losing team. The Colorado Avalanche won 16 games, and he was 11-21-3 in his second season with the team.
The July 2011 trade that brought him to Denver looked like a bad deal for an organization that had struggled since 2003 to find a successor to Hall of Famer Patrick Roy.
The answer, strangely, was hiring Roy as the coach. When the four-time Stanley Cup winner came aboard, Varlamov’s fortunes changed. This season he led the NHL with a franchise-record 41 wins and, more important, he came up big in Colorado’s 4-2 victory over the Wild on Saturday that gave the Avalanche a 2-0 lead in the first-round playoff series.
“I have so much confidence in him,” Roy said. “He has been our best player all year, and [Saturday] was just a solid game from him.”
Varlamov rarely heard praise like that in the 2013 season, when a porous defense contributed to his 3.02 goals-against average. But when Roy was hired, he brought along his mentor, Francois Allaire, from his early NHL playing days. Roy and Allaire didn’t overhaul Varlamov’s style but made little adjustments.
Varlamov was a willing pupil after several heart-to-heart talks with Roy. Varlamov said Allaire — who rarely grants interviews — worked with him on lateral movement and persuaded Varlamov to hold his glove higher and at a slightly different angle, giving shooters less net.
The change was significant. His goals-against average dropped to 2.41 and his save percentage went from .903 to .927. His improvement has Roy plugging his goaltender to be the league MVP.
“He should be a candidate for the Hart Trophy,” Roy said. “That’s as high as I think of him right now. Varly has been our best player, he’s been phenomenal for us from the get-go.”
He was phenomenal Saturday. After letting in a tough goal to Wild forward Charlie Coyle at 4:18 of the first period, he blanked Minnesota for the next 54 minutes while his offense gave him a 3-1 lead. A beautiful shorthanded goal by Marco Scandella made it 3-2 before Paul Stastny’s empty-netter capped a 10-point night by Colorado’s top line.
It was a bounce-back performance for Varlamov after a shaky Game 1, and one the Avalanche needed.
“He was huge, but that’s stuff we expect from him,” Stastny said.
“A lot of people thought a lot about the first game but, hey, he played well enough to win,” Roy said. “I had no doubt in my mind he was going to play a really solid game.”
Colorado center Matt Duchene will take another step in his return from a sprained left knee when he takes the ice Monday morning in Minnesota. Duchene has been out since being injured March 29. Although Duchene is well enough to skate, Roy said the team will be cautious with him.
“We’re not going to push. We’re going to be very smart about when he’s going to come back,” Roy said. “He’s going to want to play soon, and it will be up to our doctors and [trainers] to determine if he’s ready to play. I know Dutchy might try to come back faster, but we’re not going to let him come back until our doctors are extremely comfortable to have him play in a game.”
Roy has all but ruled out Duchene, the team’s leading scorer, making a return during the first round.
Center John Mitchell (head) also is on the trip, but there was no update on his progress. Roy said Mitchell is day to day but there is no timetable for his return.