The first period wasn't even over and Semyon Varlamov was already thinking bad thoughts.
A lousy, stinking intra-squad game on Sept. 17, the annual Burgundy-White scrimmage, had the Colorado Avalanche goalie feeling bluer than blue after the first few shots he faced. The game wasn't even nine minutes old and Varlamov had already given up goals to White forwards J.T. Compher and Andrew Agozzino.
Was this going to be his new normal? Was all the hard work he spent rehabilitating from hip surgery going to go up in smoke? For the rest of a game in which he allowed five goals on 28 shots to a team mostly made up of rookies and minor-leaguers, doubt was Varlamov's constant companion.
"I felt like I was playing in a soccer net, not a hockey net," Varlamov said Sunday night. "It was my first game back in a long time and you never know how you're going to feel. I felt like I didn't belong on the ice in that game."
But now? Now, Varlamov is feeling much better mentally. He had his second straight strong appearance in Colorado's easy 5-1 win over Minnesota Sunday. Doubts about whether he could even still play in the NHL have been quelled.
Varlamov, though, knows the games haven't started to count yet. His first real test since undergoing hip/groin surgery last season will come Oct. 5 at New York's Madison Square Garden, in the Avs' season opener against the Rangers.
"Right now, I'm still focusing in on getting in game shape, because I still haven't played a (real) game since last January. I still need to keep feeling the game again," Varlamov said. "I've only played two preseason games, but I feel good physically."
Varlamov had his hip repaired by renowned Vail surgeon Dr. Marc Philippon, and he worked out daily under the guidance of Avalanche trainer Scott Woodward. The 29-year-old Russian goalie, who has two years left on a contract at a $5.9 million cap hit, raves about the jobs both did for him.
"We have an outstanding medical staff here in Colorado. And Dr. Philippon did an outstanding job," he said.
Varlamov showed his old agility in the game against Minnesota. He was able to get down in the butterfly and back on his skates in fractions of a second, for shots and rebounds. He has shown no side effects from the surgery. Does re-injury occupy his thoughts any though?
"No, I don't think like that. I just try to stay in the moment and right now I feel good, but I don't think too far ahead," he said.
Avs general manager Joe Sakic never lost faith that Varlamov could return to the form that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013-14. It was why he chose to make him the one goalie protected from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion draft. The Avs believe Vegas would have chosen Varlamov had he been exposed, so they left Calvin Pickard unprotected. He wound up going to Vegas, and now Jonathan Bernier is his new backup.
"He's a very good goalie. So was (Pickard). But I really like having him as a partner," Varlamov said.
The Avs sent the following players to San Antonio of the AHL Monday: