Caps Rely on Youth To Replace Johnson

Neuvirth Is No. 2, Varlamov May Be Next

José Theodore has started 16 of the Capitals' past 19 games and might get an even bigger workload with backup goalie Brent Johnson out for six to eight weeks.
José Theodore has started 16 of the Capitals' past 19 games and might get an even bigger workload with backup goalie Brent Johnson out for six to eight weeks. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009; Page E01

The Washington Capitals' depth at goaltender is about to be put to the test. One day after losing Brent Johnson -- José Theodore's backup -- for six to eight weeks because of surgery to repair a labral tear in his hip, General Manager George McPhee said he has no immediate plans to pursue a veteran replacement.

Instead, McPhee said, the Capitals will hand the backup duties to 20-year-old prospects Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, the team's first- and second-round draft choices in 2006. Varlamov won his first two NHL starts earlier this season; Neuvirth has yet to make his debut.

"We're pretty high on these young goalies and when José needs a break we'll play them," McPhee said. "We're not interested in any other goalies right now."

Johnson's injury, and the inexperience of Varlamov and Neuvirth, likely will mean an increased workload for Theodore, who has started 16 of the past 19 games, Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

"He's done it before," Boudreau said of Theodore, 32, who has not played in more than 53 games since appearing in 67 in 2003-04. "If you ask him, I bet he loves it and he wants to be counted on."

Neuvirth has been in Washington since Wednesday and has served as Theodore's backup the past two games. He was recalled from Hershey ahead of Varlamov, the organization's top-rated goaltending prospect, because Varlamov has been sidelined with a sprained knee. Varlamov was scheduled to see a doctor again yesterday with the hopes of receiving clearance to return to the lineup.

"It's a minor tweak of the knee," McPhee said. "As far we know, it's nothing serious."

When Varlamov is healthy, it is possible that he will rejoin the Capitals and Neuvirth will return to Hershey. Varlamov was impressive in wins over Montreal and St. Louis in December, stopping 61 of 64 shots in a pair of standout performances that solidified his status as Theodore's eventual successor.

But until Varlamov returns, the backup job belongs to Neuvirth, a Czech native who began the season in the ECHL skating for the South Carolina Stingrays. He could make his first NHL start next weekend when the Capitals have back-to-back road games against Tampa Bay and Florida.

"I want to be here as long as I can be," said Neuvirth, who joked that he has clothes and personal belongings in South Carolina, Hershey and Arlington. "I got to buy some new clothes. I have nothing."

Capitals Notes: McPhee added two defensemen and Boudreau shook up his forward lines in the aftermath of Thursday's defensive meltdown against Los Angeles, an unsightly 5-4 defeat in which the Kings scored on breakaways three times.

In an effort to shore up the blueline, the team claimed Staffan Kronwall, the 26-year-old brother of Detroit's Niklas Kronwall, off reentry waivers from Toronto and recalled Karl Alzner from Hershey. Alzner likely will be in the lineup tonight against Florida; Kronwall, who hasn't played in an NHL game this season but has 52 on his résumé, is expected to join the team after securing his immigration documents.

"Our pro scouts see some upside in this player," McPhee said of Kronwall, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound puck-moving Swede drafted in the ninth round by Toronto in 2002. "And as you know, we've been tight on the salary cap all year, and because this is reentry waivers, it's an inexpensive way to add to your organization."

McPhee estimates that the Capitals will have to pay Kronwall about $87,000 for the rest of the season, or roughly half of the remaining salary on his contract. The Maple Leafs will pay the rest. . . .

Based on yesterday's practice, the majority of which was spent shoring up neutral zone and defensive zone coverage, it looks like John Erskine might be a healthy scratch tonight. . . .

As for Boudreau's line changes, the most interesting combination was Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Michael Nylander. . . .

First-line right wing Viktor Kozlov is expected to miss his second consecutive game with the groin muscle strain he suffered Tuesday in New Jersey. Brooks Laich also did not practice yesterday because of a lower leg contusion he suffered while blocking a shot in the second period on Thursday. If Laich can't suit up, a call-up will be needed.

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