Lost in all the euphoria Thursday night at Verizon Center was this not-so-insignificant fact: It’s possible the playoff-bound Capitals are down to their third- and fourth-string goaltenders.
The team was predictably tight-lipped about the severity of Michal Neuvirth’s injury. But it sure didn’t look good as Tomas Vokoun’s backup was helped to the dressing room following a second-period collision that left him unable to place any weight on his left leg. Vokoun, of course, has missed three games with a groin muscle pull.
After the postseason-clinching 4-2 victory over Florida, team officials said they hoped that Neuvirth would be better in the morning.
The reality is that he might not be.
If he’s not, the Capitals could be headed into Saturday’s pivotal game against the Rangers in New York, a chance to clinch a fifth consecutive Southeast Division championship on the line, with the Hershey Bears’ goaltending tandem – youngster Braden Holtby as their No. 1 and journeyman Dany Sabourin as the backup.
Holtby, 22, made his 20th NHL appearance when he relieved Neuvirth. Sabourin, 31, hasn’t suited up for an NHL game since January 2009, when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s far from an ideal situation, but Capitals and their fans can cling to this: Holtby is a highly-rated prospect who’s enjoyed some success in Washington over the past two seasons. In fact, he’s 13-4-3 with three shutouts, a .926 save percentage and 2.08 goals against average.
“Holts is a good goalie, man,” forward Brooks Laich said. “I’ve said it before. He’s going to be a stud in this league. He just got caught up in a numbers game. If he is the go-to guy now, if Michal does miss some time, we’re one hundred percent confident in Holts.
“He’s just a competitor,” Laich added. “He actually reminds me of Olaf [Kolzig]. He has that same fire and same desire in him. In practice, he clears every single puck out of his net and if you shoot one in there, he clears it out and shoots it at you. He swings his stick. He’s a real, real competitor in the crease.”
Although Holtby was pulled in his previous start – a disastrous effort in last week’s 5-1 loss to Buffalo – he showed some of the promise Laich was referring to against Florida. He came off the bench cold, but finished with 12 saves, including a key stop in the third period.
“There’s so much adrenaline floating through you that your arms are shaking, your knees are shaking,” he said. “You just try to calm down and run off of adrenaline.”
He yielded both goals, though neither was his fault. The first was a perfectly-placed wrist shot from Mikael Samuelsson. The other, a slap shot by Ed Jovanovski, took a fluky bounce off a Capital before eluding him.
Then the rookie was one of the team’s best players in the clutch, in one the biggest regular season games played on F Street in years.
Holtby stopped the final five shots he faced, including a prime scoring opportunity for Kris Versteeg, who sliced through the slot before firing from point-blank range. With a flick of his right pad, Holtby saved the game – and perhaps a lot more.
“It was a big save, but I don’t think he did what he wanted,” Holtby said of the stop that preserved the Capitals’ 3-2 lead. “So I kind of got lucky that way.”
Not much has unfolded as expected for the Capitals this season. So it comes as no surprise that it appears the goaltending situation entering the postseason might not, either.