- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It’s March 31, two weeks before the start of the NHL playoffs. Do you know who the Capitals’ best goaltender is?

Are you sure enough to bet your season tickets on it?

Last summer, when Bruce Boudreau was mulling his roster for the upcoming season, he never imagined he’d be in the position he’s in now. He never thought, as the playoffs approached, he’d be playing eeny, meeny, miney - or is it Neuvy, Varly, Holtby? - with three goalies, all of whom have the stuff to be the starter.

With the departure of Jose Theodore, Boudreau figured that Semyon Varlamov would be the clear-cut No. 1, Michal Neuvirth would slide into the backup role (after two years of grooming in Hershey), and Braden Holtby would be the netminder-in-waiting in the minors. The Caps’ coach “never really envisioned the competition that they’d have,” he said Thursday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex - or “that Holtby would step into the picture so fast and play as well as he’s played.”

It’s created quite the conundrum for Boudreau. After all, you could make a strong case for (or against) any of the goaltenders. Neuvirth, for instance, has the most wins (24), but also has the worst goals-against average (2.46) and save percentage (.915). Varlamov is the only one with NHL playoff experience and has played solidly in the past two postseasons (2.49, .915) - but he’s a modest 10-9-5 as a starter this season and has had trouble staying healthy.

Then there’s Holtby, who kept getting called up because of Varly’s various hurts (and most recently, because Neuvy got sick). All he’s done is go 8-0-1 in his last nine games with a mere nine goals against and two shutouts. This earned him NHL First Star of the Week honors and … a return ticket to Hershey because, of course, three’s a crowd when it comes to goalies. Besides, Holtby is the youngest of the bunch at 21 and the least battle-tested.

So this is the mess Boudreau finds himself in. And don’t kid yourself, it is a mess - of sorts. Yes, every club in the league would love to have three talented goalies 23 and younger, and as Ted Leonsis has said, “If we decide to trade one of them, we’ll get something good for him.” But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the decision Boudreau will have to make in a couple of weeks, a decision that could well determine the fate of the season.

Let’s face it, after last year’s first-round fold-up, the Capitals are desperate to make a deep playoff run, and to do that they’re going to need stellar play in the net. In fact, goaltending might be a bigger factor for them than it’s been in the past because they’re a more defensive team now, more apt to win 3-2 than 6-5.

Every year, it seems, the Caps have this Goalie Drama. In 2008, they benched franchise icon Olie Kolzig down the stretch and went with Cristobal Huet, who’d been acquired at the trade deadline. In ‘09, they bailed on Theodore after the first playoff game and turned to Varlamov. And last year, they bailed on Theo eight minutes into the second playoff game and turned to Varly.

Being a serious Stanley Cup contender requires a bit more certainty at the goalie position (unless Ken Dryden suddenly falls in your lap in the last month of the season). The Capitals, for a variety of reasons, haven’t had it. That’s why it behooves Boudreau to make the right choice this time - and it won’t be easy. Indeed, he’ll be relying more on gut feeling than anything tangible or measurable. Anybody got a coin for him to flip?

Actually, let me retract that last remark, because a coin has only two sides, and there are three goaltenders to consider. No matter which direction Boudreau goes in, he’ll be open to second-guessing. If he opts for Neuvirth - and the Caps don’t win it all - the Varlamov and Holtby factions will be upset (unless Neuvy stands on his head). If he rotates Neuvirth and Varlamov - and the Caps fall short - fans will wonder whether the best goalie might have been in Hershey.

History suggests Boudreau will start with the more experienced guy (Varly), but have a quick hook. I wouldn’t blame Boudreau, though, if he were thinking: What would Nostradamus do?