Semyon Varlamov remains in the net for the Washington Capitals for now

"I wouldn't say I'm playing that great yet," Semyon Varlamov, above, said through a team translator. Varlamov has started four games since Dec. 26, going 3-0-1. In his previous five games, he hasn't allowed more than two goals in a single outing and has stopped 152 of 158 shots for a .962 save percentage. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:22 AM

Semyon Varlamov didn't expect to start against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 26. But when Michal Neuvirth felt a twinge in his groin after the morning skate that day, the Russian took advantage of the chance to reclaim the net, stopping 33 shots in a 3-2 victory.

Varlamov has started each of the four games since, going 3-0-1 and putting himself ahead of Neuvirth, for now, in the ongoing competition to become the Washington Capitals' top goaltender. Entering Tuesday's game in Florida against the Panthers, he hasn't allowed more than two goals in a single outing of those five and has stopped 152 of 158 shots faced for a .962 save percentage. He's been spectacular when necessary, controlled rebounds and been the consistent presence his teammates need as they continue to focus on defense.

"I wouldn't say I'm playing that great yet," Varlamov said through a team interpreter. "I've only played 15 games this year, but the team as a whole has done better recently, defensively we're playing much better now."

Despite Varlamov's recent success, Coach Bruce Boudreau maintained that the competition between Washington's 22-year-old netminders remains as close at the halfway point of the season as it was at the outset.

"He hasn't given up much and he's played great, but to be a great goalie in this league you have to do it for more than five games," Boudreau said. "You've got to do it over a season, two seasons - then you've got the reputation of being a very good goalie. Especially for the young guys, I hope they don't rest on their laurels of what they've accomplished so far, because we really haven't accomplished anything tremendous right now."

Part of the uncertainty and continually fluctuating nature of the Capitals' goaltending situation remains the health of both Varlamov, who missed the bulk of the first six weeks this year with a groin injury, and Neuvirth, who said Monday he is ready to play after recovering from his latest groin problem.

There's also the consideration that both goaltenders have each played just 47 career regular-season NHL games. They are both still in "the development stage," said Capitals goaltending coach Arturs Irbe, and they need experience and games to progress.

"It's a really interesting situation, because they've shown they can play in NHL," Irbe said. "It's really up to them to each show they can move beyond that."

When Boudreau has had two healthy goaltenders at his disposal during his time in Washington, he historically leads with whomever is playing the best and winning at any moment.

"The thing I try to constantly remind both of them is that situations change in a hurry - they must be prepared all the time," Irbe said. "We saw it when Varly [took over as starter] the last time. . . . Right now, he's hot; I think it's only right to give him a chance to play, but we know Neuvy needs to get back in and he's getting hungry for that game."

With the Capitals scheduled for three games in four days this week it's likely Neuvirth will get to start soon, possibly in one of the two back-to-back contests, but it's now his task to match Varlamov's strong play.

"It's hard to not play, but I want the team to win, so I'm cheering for Varly every night," Neuvirth said. "We both want to play and we both want to take this team into the playoffs. It's not easy when you're not playing, but I can handle it and I will wait for my next chance."

Capitals notes: Alexander Semin did not make the trip to Florida, Boudreau said. The winger missed the third period of Washington's 3-2 win over the Panthers on Saturday after absorbing a hip-on-thigh hit late in the second. . . . Boyd Gordon traveled with the team and may return to the lineup for the first time after missing 10 games with a staph infection in a toe on his right foot.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company