To have three young, capable goalies, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau has said, is a luxury.
Unless you're one of them, that is.
With 12 games remaining before the playoffs begin, it's time for Boudreau to finally hand out the starting job, and he knows it.
“We want to make a decision pretty soon, and hopefully we will,” he conceded after Sunday's 4-3 overtime win against the Blackhawks. “They're really not making it easy on me. I'm not trying to be aloof here.”
If it were up to me, I’d commit to Michal Neuvirth as the starter, even with a more experienced Semyon Varlamov inching toward a return and Braden Holtby impressing enough to be named the NHL’s first star of the week.
Varlamov might have the highest upside of the three, but he hasn't shown he can stay healthy. He hasn't played since Feb. 20 and is sidelined right now with a suspected knee injury. Even if he returns soon, you've got to wonder if a month is long enough for him settle into a groove.
Holtby, meantime, has gone 4-0-0 with a 1.05 goals against average and .965 save percentage over the past seven days.There's no longer any doubt that he's going to be a good one. But with a mere 12 NHL appearances on his resume, it's too soon to consider him for a starting job in the playoffs.
Which brings me back to Neuvirth.
His play masked the Capitals' deficiencies in October and November, when he started the season 12-3-1 with a 2.63 goals against and .912 save percentage. Since then he's alternated starts with Varlamov, given up the net to Varlamov altogether for a few stretches and battled some nagging ailments. Through it all, though, he's arguably been the Capitals' most consistent player in a regular season that's going to be remembered for its maddening ups and downs.
Of course, there's the small matter of Neuvirth’s NHL playoff resume. It's blank. He did, however, lead the Hershey Bears to back-to-back Calder Cups the past two springs. Yes, I know it was the minor leagues. But his performance in Washington over the past five-plus months suggests that he's ready to do it up here.
Neuvirth was on another roll, having won four in a row, when Tampa Bay's Nate Thompson fired a slap shot off of his mask on March 7. He missed the rest of that game because, according to the team, a piece of metal from his mask had gotten into his eye.
The 22-year-old Czech sat out the Edmonton game, but from all appearances could have played Friday against the Hurricanes. Instead, Boudreau turned to the “hot hand” and Holtby earned a 2-1 win. Then on Sunday, with NBC and the Stanley Cup champs in town, Holtby persevered through an uneven performance.
But as the Capitals extended their winning streak to eight games, Neuvirth again sat at the end of the bench, his baseball cap pulled down low.
Those who are around the team on daily basis tell me Neuvirth has been cranky in recent days. Early in Friday's morning skate, he left the ice in a huff after a teammate sent a puck whizzing past his mask.
“I definitely want to get back in the net and do good,” he told me Sunday. “Playing every game is more comfortable for every goalie. Your confidence is there all the time. Your focus is there all the time. As a goalie, I would like to play every game.”
There are few intangibles in professional sports more important than confidence. Boudreau acknowledged as much when discussing Boyd Gordon's recent surge during Sunday's postgame news conference.
“Mentally, it's been a lot easier on him,” Boudreau said of the checking-line forward. “He knows that’s his job now. In the past – and I loved the way him and Dave Steckel played together – but you had to make a choice. We made our choice, and [Gordon] has stepped up.”
It’s no different for goalies, who treat the cage as a piece of personal property. They don't like to share it. They overanalyze things. Their focus isn't always where it should be because they’re always looking over their shoulders.
With a six-game road trip set to begin Tuesday in Montreal, the time for a “healthy” competition has passed.
It's time to hand Neuvirth the keys to the hottest ride in the NHL right now and, in Boudreau's words, let 'em run with it.