At the start of Washington Capitals training camp roughly six months ago, Coach Bruce Boudreau decided to let his two promising 22-year-old goaltenders slug it out for the starting job in net. With only eight games left in the regular season, that competition still hasn’t concluded — and it may not be settled at all.
This week, Boudreau said there is a real possibility that the Capitals will venture into the Stanley Cup playoffs in mid-April with the mind-set of using both Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Granted, only one netminder can start in Game 1 of the postseason, but Boudreau has shown in the past that he won’t hesitate to flip the switch after one contest.
“I think if you look at the way the season and their careers have gone, that neither one has played 20 games in a row [in the NHL], you’re probably looking more at winning by committee than anything else,” Boudreau said. “If one gets extremely hot, you’re not going to take him out of the lineup. But in our situation here, we’ve seen, I think, [six] in a row the maximum that either one has played all year.”
In the Capitals’ last two postseasons, Boudreau used a win-and-you’re-in approach, replacing struggling veteran Jose Theodore with Varlamov after a Game 1 loss to the Rangers in 2009 and midway through the first period of Game 2 against the Canadiens in 2010.
Each goaltender’s health may continue to determine more about the rotation than either’s success, however. Neuvirth and Varlamov have rarely been healthy simultaneously this season, but both are expected to see time in Washington’s set of upcoming back-to-back games.
Neuvirth expects to appear in his 45th contest of the season Friday against Ottawa, while Varlamov, who has missed 11 games with a knee injury, will likely make his first start since Feb. 20 and his 25th game of the year in Montreal on Saturday.
While Varlamov has 19 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience over the past two years, Neuvirth carried the load for the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears on back-to-back Calder Cup championships, playing 22 consecutive playoff games in 2009 and 18 of 21 in 2010. While he hasn’t experienced a single NHL postseason contest, the young Czech said he believes he is capable of a similar run.
“I think I have no problems to play maybe 16 or 20 games in a row like I did in the past,” said Neuvirth. “If even me and Varly be switching, [it’s about] whatever is going to take us to the Cup, no matter what. Everyone on the team is here to win the Cup; we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get there.”
Varlamov, who was not available for an interview Thursday, recently expressed his frustration with the way injuries have kept him out of the game this season.
“For the second year in a row, something weird is going on with me,” Varlamov told Russian newspaper Sovetsky Sport. “When you are injured, and another goalie is playing instead, it’s upsetting. On the other hand, if a goalie wins games, it’s good for the team.”
The Russian is the only one of Washington’s core trio of young goaltenders — along with Neuvirth and Braden Holtby — who is not under contract for the 2011-12 season. Dmitry Chesnokov, who writes for Yahoo’s Puck Daddy, reported earlier this week that Varlamov’s Russian agent Vyacheslav Makhrensky said the goaltender would consider offers from Eastern Europe’s Kontinental Hockey League.
Varlamov’s future with Washington could be determined by he performs — and how many games he plays — in the postseason. The way Boudreau chooses his starting goaltenders, though, it’s too soon to make any predictions about the playoffs.
“We’ll use whoever we thing is going to win that particular game and that’s as far ahead as we’re gonna think,” Boudreau said. “I mean, who’s gonna win this game tonight? [Once we decide] this is the goalie that’s going to win this, that’s the goalie that plays. The next night might be a totally different thing.”
Capitals notes: Marcus Johansson went off the ice late in Thursday morning’s practice after being hit in the mouth by a puck, but Boudreau said the rookie center would be fine and ready to go for Friday’s game in Ottawa.
“He took a puck to the mouth, last friggin’ drill,” Boudreau said. “He got a pretty good cut in his lip, probably going to require some stitches. He’s fine and ready to play.” . . . Alex Ovechkin (undisclosed injury) and Jason Arnott (lower body) both took part in a rather brisk workout prior to the full team practice Thursday, but none of the Capitals’ injured players will make the trip to Canada, Boudreau said.