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Winter Classic 2011: Capitals coach selects Semyon Varlamov to start in goal

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 11:22 PM

PITTSBURGH

It's rarely this easy for Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau. But Semyon Varlamov left him with no choice.

Varlamov will start in goal Saturday in the Winter Classic, Boudreau confirmed Friday, having earned the opportunity after an impressive performance in back-to-back wins over Carolina and Montreal this week. It also means Michal Neuvirth, easily the Capitals' best player over the season's first six weeks and owner of 14 of the team's 22 wins this season, will be relegated to watching from the bench at Heinz Field while his teammates skate in the biggest regular season game in the franchise's 36-year history.

"I can't see how I can't give him the start," Boudreau said after Friday's outdoor practice. "I have all the faith in the world in Neuvy because he's played great. But this is what happens sometimes. You can only play one, so Varly gets the nod."

Neuvirth had been on target to start the NHL's annual outdoor game, and for a while, seemed to have the starter's role on lockdown as well. But the Czech felt a twinge in his groin muscle during the morning skate Sunday in Raleigh, N.C., and left the ice early. He didn't know it at the time, but that bit of caution ended up costing him a start in the Classic, and for now, his hold on the No. 1 job.

"Neuvy was playing great and the day after Christmas he was scheduled to start," Boudreau said. "He came to me and said he felt tight in his groin. So I asked Varly if he was ready and he said, 'Damn sure.' "

"In his way," Boudreau said, squinting his eyes and gritting his teeth as he recalled his conversation with Varlamov. "He said, 'I'm ready.' It's hard to explain in words the determination on his face."

Little has been predictable with the Capitals' goaltending situation since Olie Kolzig's unceremonious departure at the end of the 2008 season. Jose Theodore bridged the gap to Neuvirth and Varlamov. But three months into the season, it's still unclear which of the youngsters Boudreau trusts more. The issue will be an important one as the playoffs approach.

Boudreau has said he's simply waiting for Neuvirth or Varlamov to force his hand. But the past two weeks haven't cleared things up any.

In the span of five days, Neuvirth helped the Capitals snap an eight-game losing streak in Ottawa, beat New Jersey and played well against Pittsburgh in a shootout loss. Then came the twinge in his upper thigh.

All Varlamov has done since stepping in for Neuvirth is stop 58 of 60 shots.

"The last five games, they've both grabbed the horns," Boudreau said. "It's a great inner competition. They both want to play all the time. They both want to be number one. At the beginning, we said we were going to alternate. But then we started losing and I said, 'The hell with it: If you win, you're in.'"

It's actually a little more complicated than that. But then again, isn't it always when it comes to Boudreau and his goaltenders?

In mid-October, it would have been hard to imagine any circumstance in which Varlamov would get the nod over Neuvirth on New Year's Day.

Neuvirth opened the season 7-3-0 with 2.15 goals against average and a .926 save percentage en route to claiming rookie of the month honors. Varlamov, meantime, was sidelined with the latest in a litany of leg injuries.

But now the roles are reversed and it's Varlamov who has a chance to convince Boudreau.

Interestingly, it will be only Varlamov's second regular season start against the Penguins.

In the aftermath of that infamous Game 7 defeat at Verizon Center in 2009, Boudreau wasn't comfortable playing him against the Penguins until April.

"I hope so," Boudreau said, asked Varlamov is completely over that postseason letdown. "I don't know. But if you're holding onto something from two years back, you're in trouble."

Boudreau said he's going on instinct these days. Sometimes that means going with the hot goalie.

Other times, it means trusting his gut. In the past, Boudreau, an admitted numbers junkie, would weigh a goalie's career stats against a particular opponent. But with a pair of 22-year-olds who have only 82 career regular season starts between them, there's just not enough data available.

"It's just going to be a feel thing until stats can be a determining factor," Boudreau said. "It's like a pitcher, when to put them in and when not to."

And what is that "feel" telling him, with his Capitals about to face their biggest rival on national television, on the first day of 2011? Varlamov is his goalie - for now.

elbashirt@washpost.com

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