“As far as being a number one goalie,” he said, “I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with that. . . . Once you get complacent like that, your job’s history.”
So it’s worth looking at a little history of the position in Washington, at least during these five straight seasons that have ended in the playoffs, the run that has set expectations so high around here. That first Southeast Division title, and first playoff spot, came in 2008 with Cristobal Huet in net. The midseason acquisition departed for Chicago via free agency, and now plays in Switzerland. Not the answer.
Huet’s free agent replacement was veteran Jose Theodore, who won 62 games combined in 2008-09 and 2009-10, but couldn’t keep his job in the playoffs after either season. Not the answer. His replacement, both times: Semyon Varlamov. The young Russian was so unfamiliar in his first playoff run – just six regular season NHL games – that the entire North American hockey world misspelled his name as “Simeon.”
But when Varlamov beat the Rangers in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, then pushed the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in the next round, those chants of “Var-ly! Var-ly!” that rang through Verizon Center figured to be around for future playoff runs in future springs. He seemed like the answer.
But Varlamov couldn’t stay healthy, and he started making demands about being assured the top job. The Capitals couldn’t do that, so in the summer of 2011, they dealt him to Colorado for draft picks. They had Michal Neuvirth already established in the NHL, with Holtby on the way – and then they signed Tomas Vokoun as a free agent for one year, because Vokoun decided Washington was in such a good position to contend for the Cup, he would take less money to come here.
“I don’t think we anticipated being this fortunate,” General Manager George McPhee said upon Vokoun’s arrival.
With Ovechkin and Backstrom combining for just six goals to this point, with Semin in Carolina and Green nursing an injury, their fortunes now are tied to other people in other positions. Goaltender is just one of them, but it’s perhaps the most important. At some point, the position at which the Capitals once seemed so deep and promising must fulfill that promise and be the reason they win games, not just the reason they’re in them.