It’s time for Dale Hunter to stop the goalie carousel.
With two games remaining in the regular season – and the possibility of a first-round playoff series only a week away – the Capitals’ coach needs to make up his mind and publicly put his support behind one of the team’s two young netminders.
It’s either Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby. But not both. No more toggling between the two, alternating based on the team’s result the previous game.
That’s not good for any goalie’s psyche. It means he’s constantly looking over his shoulder and potentially focused on something other than stopping the puck.
It’s not good for the players in front of him, either. If the coaching staff doesn’t have confidence in the goalie, why should they?
This wasn’t supposed to be an issue again this season. Tomas Vokoun was signed last summer expressly for this time of year. At the time, in fact, he was heralded as the piece that would push the Capitals over the top. But the 35-year-old is battling the first groin pull of his 14-season NHL career and it’s unclear whether the team’s unquestioned top option in net will return.
That leaves Hunter and his staff with a decision to make: Neuvirth or Holtby?
With Vokoun unavailable, the best choice is Neuvirth.
Neuvirth wasn’t at his best in Monday’s 4-2 loss in Tampa. The first goal – a power-play snipe from the circle – beat him cleanly between the pads and probably should have been squeezed. A soft goal, to be sure, but Neuvirth was far from the Capitals’ biggest problem at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
It also must be noted that Neuvirth’s save percentage (.901) and goals against average (2.86) don’t exactly inspire confidence. Both numbers actually rank in the bottom third of the league.
But here’s the reason Neuvirth should get the starting job: experience.
He’s played in 107 NHL games to Holtby’s 19. He’s been in the postseason pressure cooker, having defeated the New York Rangers in five games in last year’s quarterfinals before he and his teammates faltered against Tampa Bay in the semis.
Another reason to go with Neuvirth: He’s only four days removed from a dazzling performance against Montreal in a critical game. The 24-year-old Czech was the Capitals best player – by a lot – on Saturday, stopping 39 shots in a 3-2 shootout win that helped put Washington back in control of its playoff fate.
This isn’t meant to be a slight against Holtby. All signs point toward the 22-year-old blossoming into a starting goaltender at the NHL level. He’s got good size and a fiery temperament that’s reminiscent of the Capitals’ last great goaltender, Olie Kolzig.
But Holtby’s miscue-riddled effort against Buffalo last Tuesday raised concerns about his readiness to handle big-game pressure. With a chance to bury the Sabres, his first-period brain cramp got the Capitals off to a poor start and they never recovered.
Given the Capitals’ tenuous grasp on the final playoff berth, this is no time to put the team’s hopes in the hands of an untested rookie.
It’s time for Hunter to put his trust in Neuvirth and let him prove, once and for all, whether he’s a No. 1 goalie or not.
(This column was last updated at 5 p.m.)