In This Corner: Three’s company for Caps’ goalies
The Washington Capitals rookie goaltender Braden Holtby made his NHL debut on Nov. 5, 2010, when he relieved starter Michal Neuvirth in a game against the Boston Bruins. Since then, the Caps have a question looming over their heads: Now armed with three solid goaltenders, whom do you turn to in the playoffs?
In his first game, Holtby stopped all four shots he faced in his 10:09 minutes on the ice. Two days later, he made his first NHL start. He helped the Caps defeat the Flyers 3-2 in overtime, stopping 23 of 25 shots. In his 14 NHL games, he’s posted a record of 10-2-2.
At this point, Neuvirth has deserved the starting role. He’s played excellent this season, going 24-11-4 in his first full NHL season. His four shutouts on the season have him tied for first among rookies and tied for sixth among all NHL goalies. While his stats (.915 save percentage and 2.46 goals against average) aren’t the best in the league, they’re more than adequate for what the Caps need.
Semyon Varlamov, on the other hand, has once again had to battle injuries all season. He’s only played 25 games this season and has a not-so-impressive record of 10-9-4. Before last Friday, he hadn’t played since Feb. 20, a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres. His SV percent and GAA are a bit better than Neuvirth’s, .923 and 2.26 respectively, but he’s also played a little over half the total games Nuevirth has.
With only six games left in the regular season for the Caps, they should send Varlamov back down to the Hershey Bears, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, for a conditioning stint. Let him have some practice down in the AHL and bring Holtby up to spend the rest of the season in. Varlamov will be able to get plenty of playing time with the Bears against less intense teams. He can get back to normal strength and will have a lower likelihood of re-injuring himself, and Holtby will get more valuable NHL experience.
If Varlamov wants to be a viable threat in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he’s going to need to get more playing time. No one, other than the opposing team, is going to want what happened in Varlamov’s first game back to happen in the playoffs (the Caps lost 2-0 to the Ottawa Senators.)
Holby is more than capable of maintaining the back-up position in Washington while Varlamov gets his mojo back.
However, once playoffs roll around, make the switch again. Bring Varlamov back up to Washington and send Holtby to Hershey. The Bears are one of the AHL’s best teams. They’re riding back-to-back Calder Cup championships and have a high probability of going to the finals again this season. With Holtby as the No. 1 starter down there, let him get some playoff experience.
When the Stanley Cup playoffs start, Neuvirth still deserves the No. 1 starter position because he’s stayed more consistent throughout the season. And although it’s all been at the AHL level, he has more overall playoff experience. He’s played 40 games of Calder Cup playoff hockey, has won two Calder Cups, and was awarded the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for being the Calder Cup Playoff MVP in 2009, his first season with the Bears.
The Caps will need Varlamov once the playoffs start because he has a history of stepping up in the playoffs. Varlamov, the more seasoned Stanley Cup playoffs goaltender, already has 19 games of NHL playoff experience. He made his debut in 2009 to help the Caps past the New York Rangers in the first round, and come close to defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second. He also made what was arguably the best save of the playoffs, stopping a Sidney Crosby shot right on the goal line despite being out of position on the play.
The kind of experience Neuvirth received when playing for the Calder Cup is arguably what has helped him most in making the switch to NHL hockey. Holtby deserves, and needs, that kind of experience if he wants to continue to grow and become an elite NHL goaltender. Besides, he’s only 21. A little extra experience at the AHL level never hurt anyone. Bruins starting goaltender Tim Thomas played 115 games in the minors and now he has the best save percentage and goals against average in the NHL.