COLOGNE – Evgeni Nabokov did it in 2008. Ilya Bryzgalov did it last year. And now Semyon Varlamov is going for it. Russia is on its way to a third world championship, each won with a different goaltender.
Nabokov, Bryzgalov, and Varlamov were also the three Russian goalies at the Vancouver Olympics, and with Nabokov still busy with the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Bryzgalov unavailable, the Russian goal is Varlamov’s to guard.
The 22-year-old Samara native has played only three games in the tournament as the Russian coaching staff has rotated its three goalies, letting Varlamov ease into the job. He recorded a shutout in the last qualification round game when Russia beat Finland 5-0, and according to assistant coach Igor Zakharkin, Varlamov is now the starting goalie.
“We’ll go with Varlamov. He plays well right now, and as long as things go well, we won’t make any changes,” he says.
The Washington Capitals goaltender is aware of the expectations, but doesn’t let them get to him.
“I don’t feel any pressure. I just came here to play, and to win. I don’t think about pressure,” he says.
Even with an abundance of NHL superstars on the Russian roster, all eyes will also be on Varlamov. One set of eyes is especially important for Varlamov. That’s his Finnish goaltending coach Jussi Parkkila from Tampere. Parkkila was a goaltending coach in Yaroslavl a few years ago, during Varlamov’s last year in Russia. The two hit if off and Parkkila has continued to coach Varlamov.
Varlamov spent a few weeks in Tampere, Finland two summers ago, and this fall, he practiced with Tappara Tampere, a Finnish SM-liiga team that Parkkila is employed by now. Parkkila flew over to Washington after his season in Finland had ended.
“We go through every game together, I spoke with him on the phone this morning,” Parkkila says over the phone from Finland, on the day of the quarterfinal against Canada.
Not many things need to be corrected after a shutout, but according to Parkkila, Varlamov always wants to get feedback.
“He’s an exceptional talent, and I often compare him to the Boston Bruins’ goaltender Tuukka Rask. Semyon learns fast, and he wants to develop continually. It’s quite a challenge for me, so that I can make sure that I’ll be able to help him,” says Parkkila.
“He’s not going to rest on his laurels, he always wants to get better and raise the bar. He’s a very conscientious person who does everything like it’s supposed to,” Parkkila says.
Varlamov is a young goalie - he turned 22 nine days before the tournament - and while he denies feeling any pressure, he has no margin for error. The expectations are high, not only inside the Russian dressing room, but in the entire country.
“Hockey is such a big sport in Russia, it unites the whole country,” says Parkkila.
Biased as he may be, Parkkila is confident his protégé will come through. After all, having watched all games on TV, he thinks Varlamov is the best goalie in the tournament.
“He’s very, very fast, his reactions are fantastic. You can see how fast he moves if there are rebounds. He’s very flexible, there doesn’t seem to be anything his body can’t do,” Parkkila says.
“I think he’s the best in the tournament. He’s very talented and at 22, he still has a lot of time to fulfill his enormous potential,” he adds.
He’s got two more games to win the gold.