The Washington Capitals aren't used to sparse home crowds lustily booing them on a routine basis. However, that is what has happened on multiple occasions in light of some uncharacteristic regular-season struggles in 2011.
The Caps are 10 days removed from an humiliating 6-0 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers. The loss marked their fifth loss in eight contests and their supposed talent was in as much question as their commitment to playing a full 60 minutes every game. An anemic power play and the absence of a second-line center were being exposed nightly, while the overall attitude on the ice reeked of complacency.
What a difference a week makes.
George McPhee made all the right moves on trade deadline Monday, giving disgruntled fans reason to cheer as the Capitals have re-emerged as Stanley Cup contenders, winning four straight heading into Monday's big matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The power play remains a concern, but as Dennis Wideman plays catch-up, the scoring totals with the man advantage will increase. Jason Arnott has taken the pressure off of 19-year old center Marcus Johansson, and Alex Ovechkin is beginning to revert back to his superstar self. Everything is looking up for the Capitals.
But with the playoffs on the horizon there remains one last decision, which could very well be the most important one. To embark upon a successful postseason run, Bruce Boudreau must select a starting goalie to complete the identity crisis puzzle.
Boudreau has the unenviable task of choosing between Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, both excellent this season. The competition has gone under the radar for much of the year as the Caps have been preoccupied with other issues, but each has been impressive.
Neuvirth has started 11 of the past 13 games, posting a save percentage of .906. He's allowed 24 goals and posted a pair of shutouts in that span, and his 22 wins are a Capitals rookie record. Overall, he's played in 40 of Washington's 66 games and should be the the favorite to win the job. Confidence isn't a problem, as he has been aggressive in his crease, positioning himself well for such a young player. He also possesses the mental fortitude Varlamov struggles to maintain.
The 22-year old Varlamov had a dynamic month of January, where he surrendered 13 goals in seven starts. He is in the top ten in goals against (2.27) and save percentage (.923), and manned the crease for the Capitals Winter Classic victory over the Penguins. Yet for all his potential, the injury bug has hampered him constantly throughout his career. He sat out for most of the first two months of the season with a recurring groin injury and then hurt his knee in February. Currently he is listed as day-to-day, a common occurrence the past two seasons.
Perhaps Varlamov's loss is Neuvirth's gain, as the latter's recent performance could help make Boudreau's choice easier. But both goalies have shown an ability to be the number one guy between the pipes and it has been a see-saw battle. With time winding down in this regular season, it's Boudreau's move.
The Capitals are taking a huge roll of the dice by sticking with the two youngsters. Boudreau is asking a lot from this duo, but thus far, they have risen to meet the challenge.
Of course, the pressure will be ratcheted up in the playoffs. Varlamov has experienced the postseason before with mixed results. While he was magnificent at times, he also gave up several untimely goals last year, and also dropped a stinker in Game 7 against the Penguins two seasons ago. On the other hand, Neuvirth helped the Hershey Bears win two Calder Cups in the AHL, but has never played in an NHL playoff game.
Both have displayed the ability to be a full-time starter, meaning Boudreau will be hard pressed to bench one in the postseason. However, stability demands it. A goalie needs a string of games to reach his comfort zone and acquire the mindset of a starter. Alternating goalies isn't often a remedy for success in the playoffs, even if both are capable of playing at a high level.
So will Boudreau commit to one goalie or stick with his platoon system?
Continuity isn't something Washington's bench boss practices much. It's no secret the Capitals walk into the building expecting to win, and as a result they take nights off. Boudreau complicates matters by countering the lack of intensity with a new line combination. His tinkering shows an impatience on his part to develop successful chemistry. He cares very much about winning each and every game, but usually at the expense of the long-term goal.
A Stanley Cup isn't won with the flavor of the day, win-and-you're-in mentality Boudreau employs. Adjustments can be effective, but when they are the primary means for jumpstarting a team whose effort frequently comes into question, something's not right.
The Capitals aren't doomed to failure this year. They made all the right moves last week and are taking defensive responsibilities more seriously. Their superstars are heating up and Sunday's victory over the Panthers allowed them to reclaim the top spot in the Southeast Division. All that‘s needed now is a hot goalie to ride through the postseason. It can only be one.
The onus is squarely on Boudreau to make the correct choice sooner rather than later. If he does that, he'll leave the Verizon Center in June with a much different sound ringing in his ears.