Frei: Semyon Varlamov is playing better than the numbers might indicate, but it’s time to start stealing games

Dec 29, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov (1) makes a save on a shot from Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Connor Brown (28) in the second period at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Semyon Varlamov’s 2.94 goals-against average is 33rd among the 47 qualified NHL goaltenders. His .909 save percentage is 28th.

The Avalanche’s veteran Russian is playing “better” than that.

No, I’m not talking about Varlamov being relentlessly larcenous so far.

He’s not threatening to again be among the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy, as he was in 2014.

He’s playing just well enough to help this team recover from a horrible 2016-17, and to demonstrate that his two hip surgeries of nearly a year ago at least for now — knock on wood — finally have driven off his infamous groin muscle problems. (I’m neither a doctor nor play one on a podcast, so I won’t try to explain how that works.)

At some point, if the Avalanche is going to pull off the stunning single-season rebound to a playoff spot, he’s going to have to flat-out steal more games — and again be among the elite. The top goalies, or even mediocre ones, can go through those streaks when nothing seems to get past them, and it will take a run or two like that from Varlamov for Colorado to make the postseason.

But it’s about reliability. While his teammates’ praise at times is pro forma, smacking of what they’re supposed to say, the truth is he has held up well enough to give hope that he can be more of a difference-maker in the second half of the season.

If Varlamov gets the benefit of the doubt, to an extent so should Jonathan Bernier, the veteran signed in the offseason and expected to be an upgrade as the backup. But Bernier (3.29 and .893) clearly has struggled, with the exception of one-goal games against Anaheim early and then a 39-save night at Pittsburgh on Dec. 11.

Varlamov has made 24 starts and also came on for the yanked Bernier in a 7-2 loss to Dallas at home on Dec. 3.

“It’s a completely different team this year,” Varlamov said at Family Sports Center Saturday. “Great atmosphere in the locker room. I think we’re playing better defensively. D-zone coverage is definitely better than last year. It’s easier to play for the goalies, you know?

“It’s a different mentality when you’re in the playoff mix. You’re fighting for the playoffs, you’re coming to the rink and you’re excited because you want to make the playoffs. You want to play the game. And when you’re out of the playoffs by December or January or February, there’s no emotions going on. The thinking’s like, ‘When is this season going to be over?’ It kind of sucks to think that way, but that’s how we felt last year. We had no chance to make the playoffs and we just tried to play for the fans, but it was really hard to come to the locker room every morning. This year, it’s exciting.”

He was out for a three-game stretch in Thanksgiving week because of illness, and he’s on track to start about 56 games.

As the tenured veteran goalie on this team, he certainly is consulted about his workload and what might be appropriate spots for nights off. But this isn’t quite when Patrick Roy essentially plotted out his own schedule in the Colorado crease, ending up playing from 61 to 65 games for the Avalanche.

Is Varlamov’s workload about right?

“This is a question for the coaching staff, not for me,” Varlamov said. “The coaching staff is deciding who’s playing. Of course, me and Jonathan want to play the games, but there’s only one net. That’s the thing. The coaching staff is deciding, and we have to respect the decision, always. If Jonathan is playing, I’m watching and supporting him. If I’m playing, he’s watching and supporting me on the bench.”

Well, coach … ?

“I like the way he’s playing,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. “He’s feeling healthy, he’s feeling like he can play more games. He’s playing well in our ganes, he’s giving us a chance to win every night. I think he’s only going to get better and better as the season goes along. Having missed that amount of time, and kind of easing him into the season, and now he’s kind of hitting his stride, and he’s getting our team wins, which is the most important thing.”

Bednar said that going into the season, the Avalanche was “looking at about 55 games for Varly, starting him out on the slower side of things and picking it up as the season went on, depending on his play and how he’s feeling. All positive signs so far.”

Varlamov’s final appearance last season was Jan. 17, and the Avalanche shut him down a little over a week later before he underwent the hip surgeries about two weeks apart.

“When I reinjured myself like the third time during last season, we kind of started thinking there was something like going on,” he said. “We were sitting in the office of the doctors and then made the decision to do this surgery.”

Varlamov’s groin muscle issues actually were a factor in the sequence of events that led the Capitals to trade his rights to Colorado in 2011. General manager George McPhee — now with the Vegas Knights — was wary of re-signing the then-young Russian to a new deal appropriate for a long-term No.  1 goalie. The Avalanche stepped up and acquired Varlamov for a first- and a second-round pick and signed him to a three-year, $8.5-million contract. He now is under contract through the 2018-19 season, with a $5.9-million annual cap hit. Early in 2017, that contract seemed on the verge of being an albatross, but Varlamov has made it back.

“It was really hard to get back into the game shape for me, that was the most important thing,” Varlamov said. “And to stay healthy. I want to stay healthy all season. . . I went through one of the toughest surgeries in hockey. When you’re coming back from this kind of surgery, of course you never know how your body’s going to react. I’ve read some stories about hockey players who came back and then reinjured it again after recovering from this kind of surgery. I was kind of worried. Our medical staff has done a great job for me. This summer, they helped me a lot. I feel pretty good.”

Only Erik Johnson, Gabe Landeskog and Tyson Barrie remain with the Avalanche from Varlamov’s first season with Colorado, so the turnover in a little more than six years has been nearly complete.

He also turns 30 on April 27. On the current Avalanche roster, only Carl Soderberg, Blake Comeau and Johnson (by 37 days) are older.

In the NHL, time flies. Not as fast as a puck coming at a goaltender. But fast enough.

*    *   *

Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

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