By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 12:19 AM
All week in early-morning scrimmages, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov played on the same side of the ice. When one rose from the bench and skated toward the net, they tagged gloves and made a switch in what's likely to become a familiar scene, literally and figuratively, for the Washington Capitals this season.
Neuvirth and Varlamov are both promising, 22-year-old goaltenders - that much is certain as training camp opens Saturday - and for the first time there is room for both of them in Washington.
By the end of last year each arrived at something of a ceiling in his development, improving beyond the American Hockey League level or pure backup status. But while they are alike in progress and ambition, they differ in style and neither is considered to possess an insurmountable advantage over the other on the depth chart. It sets the backdrop for a possible season-long competition to become the Capitals' top netminder.
"Obviously he wants to be better than me, and I want to be better than him," Neuvirth said this week. "I think we appreciate each other, though, and we could have the best tandem in the league. Who knows what's going to happen. Hopefully we can handle the pressure."
The Capitals selected Varlamov, a native of Russia, and Neuvirth, who comes from the Czech Republic, in back-to-back rounds of the 2006 draft with the hope that one day at least one would take over lead responsibilities in net. They were viewed as the future depth at a time when former franchise goaltender Olie Kolzig was nearing the end of his career.
This summer, when Jose Theodore's two-year contract expired and General Manager George McPhee opted to not sign a veteran NHL starter, it became clear that this is the season the Capitals will put both Varlamov and Neuvirth to the test.
Varlamov played 51 games in the regular season and playoffs with the Capitals over the past two seasons. The more explosive athlete between the two, Varlamov is capable of making saves that seem to defy the laws of physics with a steely stare that offers a glimpse into his intensity.
Neuvirth appeared in 22 NHL games and backstopped the AHL's Hershey Bears to two consecutive Calder Cups in the past two seasons. Capitals goaltending coach Arturs Irbe calls him the "tame tiger" because he always appears in control, is rarely caught out of position with his efficient movement in the crease and is equally determined to prove himself.
"Both of them are being given the opportunity to show they belong in this league," Irbe said. "If somebody has a visibly better camp, they will get more consideration. . . . They are two different goalies, but both are extremely competitive and hungry for the net, which is the way they must be now."
Durability remains a concern for both players. Varlamov battled groin and knee injuries on several occasions last season, while Neuvirth has been hampered by knee problems in the past.
Understanding how critical preparation is to remaining healthy throughout the grueling NHL season was one of the largest lessons Varlamov said he gleaned from his previous time with the Capitals. Neuvirth added strength but managed to take time off after playing until mid-June with Hershey for the second straight season, while Varlamov has been working out since the beginning of July.
"I learned the key was to have really good offseason training to be in top shape when training camp starts," Varlamov said through Irbe, who served as an interpreter. "If a goalie is to play 30-40 games and avoid injuries and situations where fatigue sets in he must be in the top shape. I don't want to play just 30-40 games, I want to play 60 games a season."
Throughout the past few years, Coach Bruce Boudreau has made his approach to using two goaltenders quite clear: Win and you're in. The strategy was perhaps most apparent in the Capitals' two previous postseasons, as each time Theodore struggled, Boudreau quickly replaced him with Varlamov.
Should Varlamov and Neuvirth coexist as a solid one-two combination for the bulk of the year, Washington would become only the second team in NHL history to have a pair of 22-year-old goaltenders play in 30 or more regular season games in a single year. The only other time it happened was in 1967-68, when the Philadelphia Flyers' Bernie Parent and Doug Favell played 38 and 37 games, respectively. Just 71 goaltenders have played 30-plus regular season contests in a single year at the age of 22.
"Varly sort of has the upper hand by seniority, sort of, but it's just a little handicap, not much," Irbe said. "They don't take this for granted, though; they are not flying in the clouds. They know the opportunity is given, but not given for certain."