In a bit over a week the curtain will rise for what Caps fans have been waiting for since last season’s abrupt and painful ending: the playoffs. The team has gone through a roller-coaster of a year, but in the last quarter of the season the Caps have hit their stride and skyrocketed up the standings. While it sounds odd to write, there is no doubt in my mind that this year’s Caps are better than last year’s version, even though this year’s team will finish roughly 12-15 points behind last year’s squad. The 2011 Caps have better personnel (especially on defense, when healthy), they know how to play multiple systems depending on the situation and score, and they know how to handle adversity. Plus, there’s little pressure on them. Unlike last year, few hockey prognosticators have the Caps as favorites for the Cup. That’s key, because less pressure allows the team to play looser.
Despite those positives, drama still grips every corner of the Verizon Center, with Caps fans wondering which goalie will get the start in net for the Caps in game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals next week. I’ll ask you first before giving my opinion.
A mere week ago, the No. 1 goaltender position was Michal Neuvirth’s job to lose. But Neuvirth hasn’t wowed anyone with his recent performance – letting in 11 of his past 94 shots for an unsightly 0.883 save percentage over three games. That may have left the door open enough for Semyon Varlamov to potentially stake his claim. Bruce may still choose to go with Neuvirth – it’s been Neuvy, after all, who has carried the team’s goaltending this season. Or he may indeed turn to a more playoff-tested Semyon Varlamov. It’s hard to figure Bruce out with respect to his goaltending decisions and I’m not even going to try and guess his thought process here. He may not yet even know.
In the end, I am indifferent to whom Bruce chooses to start in net. In their young careers, neither goalie has ever demonstrated the ability to play at a high level for 20+ consecutive NHL games, so why should the fan base expect one of them to take the team on a deep four-round playoff run? I don’t. If the Caps rotate goalies – as I believe they will do – that doesn’t bother me in the slightest as I don’t value the paradigm that a team has to stick with one goalie through the playoffs. Although the past several Stanley Cup winners rode a single goaltender through all four rounds, none of those teams relied on great goaltending to lead them to glory. The last three Cup winners were back-stopped by Chris Osgood, Marc-Andre Fleury and Antti Niemi – all good goalies, none of them great. Much like those three teams, the Caps have enough up front to beat anyone with their skaters, so long as they get decent goaltending. So let it be Neuvy or let it be Varly. Heck, even let it be Braden Holtby. He may come in handy if an opponent, say the Flyers, continuously runs the goalie and rattles the other netminders.
In a perfect world one member of the goaltending trio would get hot and carry the team. But as we know much too well, nothing works out perfectly in a Washington Capitals postseason. All I ask is that the collective goaltending can play at the slightly above-average level they’ve played at this year and maybe steal one or two games singlehandedly. I’m not looking for or expecting Martin Brodeur circa 2003 or Cam Ward circa 2006.
Is it a reasonable request? I think so. I’m confident that the three-headed Neuvy-Varly-Holtby monster has the ability to carry their collective regular season play into the playoffs, and although I may be in the minority camp here, I trust Bruce to make the right decisions on who to start and when to start him. If the goaltenders can hold up their end of the bargain, a healthy Caps squad has more than enough size and skill to go toe-to-toe with any team in the NHL and make this a memorable spring in Chinatown.