For the better part of 10 years, Olaf Kolzig minded the nets for the Washington Capitals, starting an average of over 60 of the season's 82 games. With that said, it must come as a surprise to Capitals fans to know that Washington has started six different goaltenders since the trade deadline of the 2007/2008 season.
This season has been no different, as 22-year-olds Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have split time in net. While the Capitals find themselves in the envious position of having two young, promising goalies, there will have to come a time when the shuffling has to stop and either Varlamov or Neuvirth stands as the starter. The intrigue lies in which one will ultimately win the job.
During the second episode of HBO's "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road To The NHL Winter Classic," Capitals goaltending coach Arturs Irbe shared his thoughts on Varlamov and Neuvirth's development. Irbe said that the two goalies "have to realize that if they want to be No. 1 goalies, and I know they do, they have to deliver right now." Both have, but recently, Varlamov has taken the lead.
Prior to his fifth consecutive start Saturday against the Florida Panthers, Varlamov was 3-0-1 in his previous four with a .972 save percentage and a miniscule 1.33 goals against average. His steller play last week against the Montreal Canadiens and in the Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins earned Varly the NHL's "First Star Of The Week" for the week ending January 2. As of Sunday, Varlamov is 8-4-2 with a 2.08 GAA, second-best in the NHL, and a .928 save percentage, third-best.
Even with such accolades, Varlamov is not perfect. His biggest flaw is that he is injury-prone. Varlamov has missed considerable time with a nagging groin injury during his career in Washington. In December 2009, it looked as if Varlamov would finally wrangle the starting job from Jose Theodore, but a groin injury derailed that opportunity as he was sent to AHL Hershey for a rehabilitation stint. This season started the same way, as Varlamov's groin acted up again in training camp and he started the season on injured reserve. Because of that, Varly did not start until October 21 against the Boston Bruins. After that game, Varlamov's injury bothered him once more and would keep him out of action until November 24.
Neuvirth used Varlamov's injury as a way to showcase his own talents. Neuvirth's 7-3-0 record in October, combined with a .926 save percentage and a 2.15 GAA, made him the NHL's "Rookie Of The Month." With Varlamov's recent hot streak giving him the start in 13 of the Caps' last 20 games, Neuvirth hasn't started since a 3-2 shootout loss to the Penguins on December 23. It was in that game, however, that Neuvirth proved that he has as much of a chance as Varlamov to earn the starting job. Neuvy showed tremendous poise against the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, stopping the former on a penatly shot and taking the Caps to the seventh round of the shootout.
Regardless of who takes the No. 1 job, someone has to, because the Capitals need a steady presence to counteract their recent string of shaky perfomances in the postseason. After Neuvirth helped the Capitals break their eight-game losing streak December 19 against the Ottawa Senators, Mike Green said that the team needs "a guy who is going to be consistent so that [the rest of the team] can get used to playing in front of [him]."
But Green and his teammates might have to wait a while before they find that guy. With Varlamov and Neuvirth competing, head coach Bruce Boudreau said after the Winter Classic that the goaltending battle will likely continue until the final 10 games of the regular season. Recent history has shown, however, that whoever ends the regular season as the starter is not a lock for the postseason. In each of the last two postseasons, Boudreau pulled Theodore in favor of Varlamov after just one playoff game.
For the Capitals to finally reach their potential, they must have their starting goaltender solidified much earlier than the last 10 games of the season. Much like finding the perfect line combinations, the starting goaltender also needs momentum, chemistry and confidence in order to compete at the highest level.
Boudreau said during the losing streak that who starts is based on a "they win, they're in" mentality, but after Saturday's 3-2 victory over Florida, a reporter asked Boudreau again about the goaltending situation. Boudreau smiled and responded candidly, saying that he would "have to sleep on this one." He better get some rest, because with the season at its halfway point, Boudreau's nights are numbered.