The Washington Capitals have relied on young goaltenders with various levels of inexperience in each of the past three postseasons. This year, however, the Capitals’ reliance on a netminder green to the rigors of the Stanley Cup playoffs won’t be by design.
Capitals turn to a confident Braden Holtby in net against Bruins, with Neuvirth and Vokoun injured
Holtby has appeared in only 21 NHL contests and played just 16 playoff games in his career between the American Hockey League and Western Hockey League. Meanwhile, the Bruins will go with defending Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas.
“We have no choice — if the other guys aren’t ready to go, he’s playing,” General Manager George McPhee said earlier this week of Holtby. “He can handle it. We’ve had other goalies do it that were the same age, or younger.”
NHL history is wrought with tales of young goaltenders catching fire and leading a team deep into the playoffs or to a Stanley Cup championship. Among them are Ken Dryden (1971) and Patrick Roy (1986), both with Montreal, and more recently Cam Ward (2006) in Carolina.
Whether Holtby — who stands out as the most aggressive goaltender in the organization and the most apt to handle the puck — can join those ranks remains to be seen. Certainly facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in his first NHL playoff series will be a daunting task in the first round, but the Saskatchewan native doesn’t lack confidence.
“I’m not really trying to focus on the playoffs, I’m focusing on making saves,” Holtby said. “The saves don’t get any harder in the playoffs. I’ve watched them since I was a kid. They’re the same type shots, same everything. Obviously it’s more intense but it doesn’t change your ability at all.”
Washington turned to Holtby after Neuvirth suffered an apparent injury to his left leg on April 5. Vokoun had already aggravated a groin muscle strain for the second time this season on March 29. There is no definitive timetable for the return of either goaltender, though Neuvirth is further along in his recovery than Vokoun and could possibly be ready before the end of the first round.
On Tuesday, Neuvirth skated for the first time since Florida Panthers forward Marco Sturm fell on his leg and caused the injury, but his motions were far from explosive and he demonstrated more hesitation than fluidity. The 24-year-old is likely feeling some pressure to get back in the net and reclaim his spot, though, given that the injury came just four games after he ascended to the top spot on the depth chart with Vokoun sidelined.
“You’ve got to go through the pain sometimes, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Neuvirth said after participating in a few practice drills. “I’ve been better. Wasn’t good enough today, but it’s day-to-day. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow.”
Vokoun also made an appearance on the ice Tuesday after taking 12 days to rest without skating. For 20 minutes, the veteran goaltender stretched and tested his groin with hard stops and starts in the crease, as well as sliding movements from post to post. Vokoun said that while he is progressing, he’s still not sure when he will be completely healthy and available to play again.
It is the first groin injury of the 35-year-old netminder’s career, and he acknowledged that he “mismanaged it a little” with his previous attempts to return to the lineup after the initial injury in February. Unlike some ailments, a groin problem is not one goaltenders can play through because it restricts their movement in net too severely.
“Obviously it’s in a bad situation but I find out kind of the hard way, you can’t hurry something like that,” said Vokoun, who said he’s just hoping that he will be of service to the Capitals again this season. “It’s all going to depend on how long our season going to be and all the other stuff. I don’t have a lot of answers. All I have is a plan and I’m trying to stick to it and get my health where it needs to be to be able to perform on the ice.”
While Neuvirth and Vokoun mend, Holtby has made it clear he aims to provide a calming presence in net. He may not have any NHL playoff experience, but he’s fully aware of what the Capitals need from him.
“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup and in order to do that, you’ve got to beat the best teams and win your one-on-one battles, especially with the other goalie,” Holtby said. “It’s out of my control how [Thomas] plays. I’m sure he’s going to play great. He always has. It will be battle and we’ll do whatever we can to come out on top.”