Ask anyone in the Capitals’ locker room about the goaltending situation all season, and they’ll tell you pretty much the same thing: that they feel confident whether Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov or even Braden Holtby is in net.
It’s playoff time, yet as recently as a few weeks ago coach Bruce Boudreau was ready to talk about multiple goalies seeing action if his team makes a significant run.
“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, that you’re probably looking more at winning by committee than anything else,” he said.
History and Caps goaltending coach Arturs Irbe disagree. Since hockey’s modern era began in 1967, only three teams have won the Stanley Cup with a true tandem of goalies - and that was back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Despite the prevalence of two-goalie systems in NHL regular seasons, the lesson is that you can’t win hockey’s Holy Grail without relying on one goaltender.
“I don’t think it really brings the success - getting the job done by committee,” Irbe said last week. “You want to have one guy who carries the load because I don’t think the trend is gonna change. I believe in one guy. One guy is the one who gets it done.”
Only one goalie in the playoffs played 70 games in the regular season - Montreal’s Carey Price - and the Caps’ workload from October through early April was split three ways among Neuvirth (45 starts), Varlamov (25) and Holtby (12). But that was done out of necessity. As Boudreau put it, the Caps gave Neuvirth and Varlamov a chance to take over, but injuries made this rotation happen.
Call it a blessing that is no longer in disguise. Because of the injuries, no one goalie had to overexert himself for an 82-game stretch.
“Teams really need to find a way to rest their workhorse during the regular season,” said analyst Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild. “When you have a terrific tandem like Vancouver and Washington and Los Angeles have, it really allows you to rest the goalie that you’re planning on using in the playoffs.”
See Neuvirth, Michal - the man who played a total of 40 Calder Cup playoff games the past two seasons en route to winning a pair of championships in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears. Since coming to North America, Neuvirth has started 14 playoff series and won all of them.
“It was a great experience for me. I played two Calder Cup Finals - that was a lot of pressure,” Neuvirth said recently. “Obviously it’s the NHL, but down in Hershey there was a lot of pressure on us because everybody expected us to win. Same here - everybody expects us to win.”
Different level of play, but it was perfect preparation for Neuvirth in the NHL. So far, the 23-year-old has looked playoff-tested, stopping 78 of 82 shots the Rangers have put on him through three games and boasting a 1.22 goals-against average.
“If we wouldn’t think our goalies could do that, we probably wouldn’t have drafted them and kept them here and actually given them a job,” Irbe said. “We probably would have looked for somebody else.”
Letting Jose Theodore - who won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2002 - leave in free agency last offseason was a risk, but the idea was to let the kids (namely Neuvirth and Varlamov) share the net. That works in the regular season but maybe not so well now - of the past 25 Stanley Cup winners, each has featured one goalie playing at least 90 percent of the playoffs.
As right wing Mike Knuble pointed out, having one starting goaltender or two is a “great debate” among NHL general managers. Several Caps deferred to management as to which system was best.
“I think either way. I see it here, I saw it in Boston. Having two really good goaltenders, it’s always nice,” forward Marco Sturm said. “But either way, it’s totally fine - as long as you believe in those goalies.”
Seeing teams like last year’s Philadelphia Flyers almost capture the Cup with two goalies has perhaps made it look like it’s a winning recipe. And the Caps have the trust in their system and goaltenders to believe it’s possible.
“I don’t think it matters if you have a goalie playing an entire series. Sharing the load is always better,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You don’t see a goalie play 82 games in the regular season, so why play [as many as 28] games in the playoffs if they don’t have to?”
Among teams that have won the Stanley Cup since 1990, only the 2007 Anaheim Ducks had a starter play in fewer than 20 games -and that’s because they needed just 21 to go all the way. But even Anaheim had four goalies start regular-season games. Last year’s Chicago Blackhawks split regular-season games almost evenly between Antti Niemi and former Caps goalie Cristobal Huet (Huet started more), but Niemi played all but 20 playoff minutes.
Goldman said increased traffic in front, a faster-paced game since the lockout and a more grueling schedule have made it almost necessary for goalies to share the net - there’s just much more that comes with goaltending now than in decades past. Still, he said, “You can’t really look at previous seasons and say, ‘Oh the game has changed and a goalie can’t go four series and play at a high level.’ “
The Caps are only three games into a run they hope will last more than 20. And while Boudreau has insisted he doesn’t have a crystal ball to predict how the goalie situation will work out, he and his players have said Neuvirth can keep his starting spot if he gets hot.
If he falters or tires, the plan could change. But one thing is always an ingredient for success in playoff hockey no matter the system used to get there.
“Goaltending has to play an integral role in a Stanley Cup run,” Irbe said. “If you don’t have great goaltending in the playoffs, you really don’t stand a chance.”