For Washington Capitals' goalies, competition becomes a competition to stay healthy

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:17 AM

PHILADELPHIA - The Washington Capitals expected that their tandem of 22-year-old goaltenders would compete all season for the starting job. Through 47 games of the 2010-11 campaign, though, the ongoing battle in goal has been less about who is playing better and more just a matter of which netminder is healthy on game day.

On Wednesday the answer was neither, with Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov missing the Capitals' practice at Wells Fargo Center before the team traveled to New York. Both goalies are officially listed as day-to-day with undisclosed lower-body injuries.

Entering Thursday's game against the Islanders, Varlamov and Neuvirth have missed parts of at least 20 and 13 games respectively with injury or illness, leaving only about a third of the contests in which both have been available. Both already have a history of injuries - from hip and groin to knee problems - in their still-young professional careers, and durability may be the biggest hurdle for each player to overcome.

"I think it'd be a concern even if they were both healthy all the time," Boudreau said. "Every coach is always concerned about the goaltender's durability. . . . You hope that every time they lace the pads up that nothing bad happens. But it's a pretty precarious position where they've got to put their bodies in pretty weird spots sometimes. It doesn't surprise me that goalies are getting hurt and pulling muscles."

But while every team deals with bumps and bruises, none has had multiple goaltenders coping with injuries this season as frequently as the Capitals.

Of the other teams in the NHL that have used two goalies consistently, the division of starts is based on competition, like in Chicago and Columbus, or a product of just one netminder suffering an injury, as in Toronto and Colorado. In Minnesota, Niklas Backstrom and former Washington netminder Jose Theodore suffered injuries near the start of the new year, but they have missed four and three games respectively.

The Capitals on Wednesday sent Neuvirth back to Washington for further evaluation of the lower-body injury that prevented him from finishing the game Tuesday against Philadelphia. The team said it is not a groin problem that has sidelined Neuvirth, who was icing his groin and left hip area prior to Washington's 3-2 overtime loss to the Flyers.

Varlamov, who was was sidelined with a strained groin from training camp through the first six weeks of the regular season, was given a maintenance day as a precaution, Boudreau said, adding that he was hopeful the Russian would be able to dress against the Islanders. With Neuvirth no longer on the three-game trip, Washington recalled goaltender Braden Holtby from the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears.

CBC analyst and former goaltender Kevin Weekes, who retired in September 2009 after 11 NHL seasons, said it is vital for goaltenders to learn how to monitor their bodies, down to the smallest twinge.

"The last six or seven years, a lot of focus has been placed on prehabilitative exercises that are certain isolated strengthening exercises for a lot of the core muscles, stabilizers in your lower back, pelvis, hip, hip flexor and groins - a goalie's bread and butter," Weekes said.

The Capitals declined to discuss any of the conditioning techniques or practice they implement for the goaltenders, but Weekes estimated that as primarily butterfly goaltenders, Neuvirth and Varlamov will drop down into the position anywhere from 200 to 400 times in the course of a practice.

"The position is very unforgiving," Weekes said. "You try to control the controllables as best as possible by learning to get a feel for your body and being extremely diligent with your exercises. If it can limit you to one minor groin injury per season instead of four, then that's a huge amount of time you're available for your team. . . . Once they get those things, it will make a huge difference. All you can ask is that they learn."

Capitals goaltending coach Arturs Irbe said he has worked with the young goaltending tandem on adequately stretching and strengthening, along with recognizing when to play through minor injuries and pain and when to stop. But, he added, little can expedite knowledge that's best gleaned from experience.

"Goalies have to learn the preparation. It doesn't matter how much advice they get or how many people help them; at the end of the day, everybody's body is different," Irbe said. "So we are searching on a daily, weekly basis for the best solutions for each guy. . . . We're going to get there, though."

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