Healthy Semyon Varlamov joins Michal Neuvirth in competition to be Capitals' top goalie

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 2:11 AM

For the first week of the season, Michal Neuvirth didn't need to wonder much about whether he would start in goal for the Washington Capitals.

Beginning with Saturday's game in Nashville, however, Neuvirth knows the starter could very well be another 22-year-old. Semyon Varlamov is expected to dress against the Predators after fully recovering from the groin injury that cut his training camp short and kept him out for more than three weeks, marking the true start of a season-long competition to become the Capitals' top netminder.

"It was nice to get going, to play four NHL games in a row and to win three in a row at home. It was big for us and meant a lot to me," Neuvirth said. "But I understand that we will both play from now on."

Regardless of whether Varlamov makes his season debut against the Predators or Neuvirth earns his fifth straight appearance, this is simply the first of many decisions Coach Bruce Boudreau will make in a position battle that weighs significantly on Washington's postseason hopes.

Boudreau emphasized that ultimately, he isn't selecting between options, but rather waiting for one of the talented young goaltenders to rise to the top.

"If they're equal, we'll split, but somebody always comes to the forefront, plays better and ends up becoming the guy," said Boudreau, who compared the situation to when Cristobal Huet eventually earned the primary goaltending role over Olie Kolzig late in the 2007-08 season.

"They'll both get chances to play," Boudreau said. "We're in the business of winning hockey games. It has nothing to do with anything else other than winning."

Neuvirth played all 243 minutes through four games, stopping 110 of the 119 shots he's faced for a .924 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average.

He also became the first Capitals goaltender to last through the first four games of a season since Kolzig in 2005-06, but despite his success, the Czech has just 26 NHL games under his belt and plenty left to learn.

"Having gone through that, I have more confidence," said Neuvirth, who led the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears to Calder Cups in the past two seasons. "I'm feeling good and I'm happy with my game right now, but I'm going to get better. I'm going to get stronger. I want to make sure I'm healthy for another 80 games."

If Neuvirth's strong play has upped the ante at all, Varlamov isn't letting on. "I feel no pressure," Varlamov said in Russian through an interpreter. "He's playing well. It's great for the team when he does well, so I'm happy about that."

Since returning to practice this week, Varlamov has participated fully in drills and said that this groin injury wasn't as bad as the one that caused him to miss 30 games in the first half of the 2009-10 season. But it was still a frustrating setback for the oft-injured Varlamov, who arrived in Washington at the beginning of August to improve his conditioning.

Boudreau maintained that Varlamov's missed time at the start of the season doesn't put him at a disadvantage.

"Varly had already set the bar pretty high. Michal has been playing up to his potential and feeling more comfortable. When Varly gets a start, he'll play up to his potential. If he doesn't, he'll get to play again," Boudreau said. "This is not something that is going to happen by the middle of November where you go, 'Who is going to be the guy?' It might be late March before we decide on this."

Capitals notes: Defenseman Mike Green will not play against the Predators because of an upper-body injury. "He's a lot better today than he was [Thursday] so I do think it's day-to-day," Boudreau said. Green did not play the final six minutes of Wednesday's game against the Islanders after sustaining the undisclosed injury on a hit. . . .

Marcus Johansson (foot), Matt Bradley and Tom Poti (both lower-body injuries) are game-time decisions. . . .

Goaltender Dany Sabourin cleared waivers and was assigned to Hershey.

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