By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staf Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 12:05 AM
We are a country of rankings. We like lists of anything arranged in order of greatness or awfulness or any other standard we choose to impose. Sports in particular embraces rankings, but they permeate most facets of our lives: the richest people, the best colleges, the worst dressed.
The Capitals are a notable exception: They have two young goalies, but neither is designated No. 1 - at least not yet this season, and maybe not at all this season.
With the departure of veteran Jose Theodore in the offseason, Semyon Varlamov seemed destined for the No. 1 designation. But the Russian is on injured reserve after missing much of the preseason with a groin injury. Coach Bruce Boudreau expects him to play next week.
That left Michal Neuvirth to start back-to-back openers for the Caps, on the road Friday night in Atlanta - a 4-2 loss - and Saturday night at Verizon Center, a 7-2 drubbing of the New Jersey Devils for their ninth consecutive home-opening victory.
Making back-to-back starts is nothing new for Neuvirth, who did it 17 times in the past two seasons for the Hershey Bears, leading them to back-to-back Calder Cup championships. He was 14-3 with a 1.77 goals against average in the second of those back-to-back games. After the game, he admitted he was looking forward to having a day off Sunday.
"Oh, exactly," said Neuvirth, who Friday night became the youngest rookie to start in goal for the Capitals in a season opener since Jim Carey in 1996-97. "It's been a long couple days. I'm really tired right now but it should be a good day off and you got to get ready for the game on Monday."
Neuvirth faltered early, giving up a goal to Jason Arnott with less than two minutes gone in the first period. That got Boudreau's attention.
"I was a little worried after the first goal [that] because he lost yesterday that he would feel a little bit rattled, but he settled right down," Boudreau said.
Henrik Tallinder scored the Devils' second goal, also in the first period, but Boudreau didn't blame Neuvirth for that one. The Caps trailed at the end of the period, 2-1.
But in the second period, while Alex Ovechkin and the Caps scored four goals to make Martin Brodeur look all of his 38 years, Neuvirth smothered shot after shot, 17 in all, using his glove, his pads, even his entire body. He pitched another shutout in the fight-filled third inning; he stopped 31 of 33 shots on the night.
"He doesn't give up rebounds," Boudreau said. "They weren't getting second opportunities, which was really good."
"I'm always trying to be on the puck," Neuvirth said. "I'm always trying to be in position. That's my game. Be patient, be on the puck. I did it very well tonight."
Having two young goalies, neither a front-runner, would be an unusual situation for more teams, but the Capitals aren't like most teams. They had 11 first-round draft picks on their opening-night roster, including Neuvirth. For a rebuilding club that might not seem strange, but the Capitals had the best regular-season record in hockey last season.
There are all kinds of goaltending combos in the NHL. Most common is two guys with some experience, one clearly better than the other, who mostly spells the No. 1 goalie in back-to-back games or similar situations. Sometimes you see a veteran, hopefully with playoff experience, and a youngster who will learn and occasionally spell his elder. Occasionally, you have a hot young goalie and a veteran backup who can step in if the youngster falters and give the team a needed win.
And then there is what we're seeing with the Caps this season. The plan was to alternate Neuvirth and Varlamov, until the groin injury messed up the rotation. Injuries are a major concern with Varlamov, who missed a stretch of nearly 2Â½ months last season with knee and groin injuries. He finished the season 15-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average.
"He's a great guy, a great athlete, he really likes working hard and I like working with him," Neuvirth said. "I think we're heading in a lot of fun and it's going to be an exciting year for everyone and it's just nice being around these guys."
Neuvirth and Varlamov are similar on paper. Both are 22; both were selected in the 2006 draft, Varlamov 23rd overall, and Neuvirth 11 picks later, in the second round. Neuvirth is 6-feet-1; Varlamov is an inch taller.
Neuvirth, however, is a baby-faced 190-pounder; Varlamov looks years older and has nearly 20 pounds on the Czech. Varlamov is more athletic, more physically gifted and more focused. Neuvirth is a technician in goal and a mood ring would be wasted on him.
It's possible that when Varlamov is healthy and both youngsters have made more than a few starts, a No. 1 will naturally emerge. In the meantime, neither will be raising that single index finger any time soon.
"We both want to be the No. 1 goalie but we still are trying to make good teammates," Neuvirth said. "We want what is best for the team, not for us."