Nine months ago to the day, the Washington Capitals made a decision to sign a veteran goaltender they hoped could push them above the fray, a move that freed them from pinning extraordinary hope and pressure on a pair of home-grown 20-somethings.
But now that Tomas Vokoun is out with a groin muscle strain and there is no indication whether he’ll be available again this season, the Capitals have come full circle from that day in July. With three games remaining in the regular season and the playoffs looming, Washington has no choice but to rely on Michal Neuvirth, 24, and Braden Holtby, 22, to shoulder the burden in goal.
“They got some experience,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “Michal’s been here for a couple years in playoffs; that’s a pressure cooker last year in the playoffs. . . . Braden has played well. It’s one of those things where it’s a game-to-game decision that’s got to be made and we sit down with our staff, with [goaltending coach] Dave Prior and we decide.”
Throughout the season, Hunter’s tendency has been to ride a hot goaltender in consecutive games. He typically makes a switch only after a loss. That strategy, combined with the Capitals’ overall inconsistencies, has resulted in a revolving door in net.
During a four-game span in the past week, all three goaltenders started at least once. Holtby, who has 19 games of NHL experience, shut out Minnesota on March 25 to earn the nod in the biggest game of his young career against Buffalo on Tuesday. He was pulled after allowing three goals on 18 shots to the Sabres.
On Thursday in Boston, Hunter went with Vokoun after the veteran said he was healthy after straining his groin. Vokoun removed himself from that contest late in the first period after aggravating the groin injury, though, which put Neuvirth back in the spotlight.
Since he entered that game cold off the bench, Neuvirth has stopped 79 of 83 shots and helped the Capitals claim a pair of shootout victories over Boston and Montreal. It’s likely he will receive another chance to start Monday at Tampa Bay.
“Obviously, I feel bad for Vokey but it is what it is. I proved last year that I can be the man and I’m excited,” said Neuvirth, who started all nine playoff games for the Capitals last year but was relegated to a backup role with an inconsistent workload behind Vokoun for much of the 2011-12 regular season.
Neuvirth, who owns a .902 save percentage and 2.85 goals-against average, has appeared in 36 games this season, eight times in relief during some of Washington’s ugliest losses of the year. The 3-2 shootout victory over the Bruins marked the first time he came off the bench and went on to win.
“Every game is a good experience for me,” Neuvirth added. “Even last year in the playoffs that gave me a lot [of confidence] and I feel I grew up a little bit from last year and I feel that I can do the job.”
It remains to be seen whether Neuvirth proves to Hunter that he is ready to be Washington’s go-to option in the playoffs once again. It depends primarily on the young Czech’s ability to produce strong outings consistently.
Even if Neuvirth performs well, Hunter already has shown confidence in Holtby, giving the aggressive goalie key starts in high-pressure situations against Detroit, Philadelphia and Buffalo. In five appearances this season, Holtby is 2-2-1 with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage.
“I’m confident in my abilities,” Holtby said before he faced the Sabres on Tuesday. “As to carrying the team into the playoffs, I really don’t know how to answer that. . . . I’d love to. That’s the goal, obviously, for anyone.”