2008. Believe it or not, that was the last time the Washington Capitals had a solidified number one goalie heading into the playoffs. Cristobal Huet won 11 of 12 games down the stretch to get the Caps the Southeast Division title and a playoff berth, and it was clear the net was his. Since then, however, it has been anyone’s net come playoff time, and this year is shaping up to be no different.
In 2009, Jose Theodore had tight grasp between the pipes for most of the season. With a 32-17-9 record and backup Brent Johnson injured long-term (and a goalie with only 6 NHL games under his belt named Semyon Varlamov) it appeared clear that the playoffs would belong to Theodore. But after a disappointing game 1 loss to the Rangers that saw Theodore allow four goals and not play particularly well, Bruce Boudreau decided to go with Varlamov for the rest of the playoffs.
Last season was a different story with the same ending. Boudreau used Theodore and Varlamov interchangeably (including Michal Neuvirth when Varlamov was injured). He thought that throughout the course of the year one would solidify himself and take the starting job, but inconsistency with injuries to Varlamov prevented that from happening. Come playoff time, Boudreau again tapped Theodore as the starter for game 1. Again, however, Theodore was pulled in favor of Varlamov, this time after allowing goals on the first two Canadiens’ shots in game 2.
This season has been much like last season for the Caps in that they have used a goalie tandem, riding the hot hand instead of naming a bona-fide starter. This has meant stretches of play from both Varlamov and Neuvirth, in addition to AHL call-up Braden Holtby. Boudreau has yet to name a starter for the palyoffs, but it is likely he will go with Neuvirth, who has started 43 of the Caps’ 73 games with a 23-11-4 record. However, if he should falter (as Neuvirth has never played in the NHL playoffs before) Boudreau won’t hesitate to pull him in favor of Varlamov.
For the third straight postseason, the Capitals will have a starter on a short leash. But is this a problem? The commonly held belief is that the goalie needs to know it is “his” net, that he needs that confidence heading into the second season. But that isn’t true under Boudreau, who has shown in the past that he is most than willing to yank the net away from someone. There is no sense of job security between these goalies, and one could argue that has made them play better.
There is something else to consider this year regarding Varlamov as well. He has began the last two postseasons on the bench only to answer the call and keep the Caps in the series (or win it, in the case of the New York Rangers). In the past, the Caps have lost a game to mediocre goaltending only to come to Varlamov and fight their way back. Would it be wise to just start him outright this year?
While coming off injury, Varlamov has played very well this season. He has the athleticism and reflexes to cover for his mistakes, and he has vastly improved his rebound control. Not only that, but he has the most NHL regular season and playoff experience of the goalies. One could make a pretty valid argument that his clutch play in past springtimes has earned it.
Boudreau likely won’t announce anything until the day before game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs, but don’t let the “starter” title fool you: he will pull Neuvirth at the first sign of struggle and ride Varlamov until he goes cold if Neuvirth doesn’t stay on his game.