Capitals playoff goalie: Neuvirth, Varlamov, or Holtby?

The Washington Capitals were once again victorious in the raucous Bell Center last night beating the the Canadiens 2-0.  Braden Holtby was stellar in net and is continuing to fuel the speculation around whom the Capitals will rest their Stanley Cup hopes on this spring.

If you are looking at this dilemma from outside the organization, you certainly have reason to envy the position the Capitals are in.  Not many teams have the luxury of picking between three goaltenders, all of which have played fantastic hockey this season.  The fact of the matter is there are teams in the league who are struggling to find confidence in one goalie, let alone three.  The quandary the Caps are in is a testament to the organization’s ability to develop through the draft and build players from within the organization.  Others teams should take notice.

In case you are a newbie to the in’s and out’s of the Capitals’ goaltenders, here are the things you need to know.  First, all three goalies 23 years of age or younger.  Two of them are technically rookies.  Secondly, all three goalies have a completely different approach to the game.  Michal Neuvirth is probably the best of the three in terms of positioning and goalie fundamentals.  He is great post to post, in the butterfly, and plays the angles great.  Semyon Varlamov is the most athletic of the three.  He is the flashiest of the three.  If there is any comparison to Dominik Hasek to be made with either of the three, Varlamov is the guy.  He will make the saves that just leave you with your mouth wide open.  This isn’t to suggest he doesn’t have the fundamentals down, he does, but he is able to improvise in net as well as anybody in the NHL.  Last but not least is Braden Holtby.  Holtby plays the game as if he has been programmed; an almost machine-like approach.  His “Holtbyisms” are well known to his followers.  He is unflappable in net and never appears to be suffering from the nerves associated with being a rookie in the NHL.  Holtby loves to play the puck, and I should add, he does it quite well.  I would also give a bit of advice to opposing players; don’t try going upstairs on Holtby.  His glove is second to none.

So now that we know what each of the three brings to the table every night, the decision at hand is which one of the three will carry the brunt of the load in the playoffs?  Will the Caps go with a goaltending by committee approach?  If the last two years are any indication, the answer to that question is yes.  In 2009, the Capitals began their first round series against the Rangers with Jose Theodore in net.  A rough first game led to Semyon Varlamov being the man the rest of the way.  Last year, Theodore was again in net to begin the series against the Canadiens.  He didn’t last long, and once again Varlamov was called upon.  So with all three goalies playing particularly well, don’t be surprised at all to see Boudreau go with one to start, but have a particularly short leash on whomever he picks.

So who does he pick to begin the playoffs?  Here is the case for each of the three.

First there is Michal Neuvirth.  Neuvirth has arguably been the Capitals’ team MVP this season.  He has been the most consistent player on the team from the beginning of the season.  In 44 games this season, Neuvirth is 24-11-4 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.46 GAA.  He has the second most wins of any rookie goaltender this season.  What is even more impressive are the four shutouts he has this season.  None more impressive than the 39 save gem he posted against the Penguins on February 21, in Pittsburgh.  That game certainly would have qualified as having a playoff feel to it.  Neuvirth didn’t buckle under the pressure of the Capitals/Penguins rivalry.  But what really sets Neuvirth apart from the other three is his play in the post season.  Granted, he hasn’t played in an NHL postseason game, but he has shown his ability to play in high-pressure situations, and there is no reason to think that wouldn’t translate over to the NHL level.  Neuvirth has now been playing in North America for four seasons.  In those four seasons, he has never lost a playoff series (14 series total). That includes an OHL championship with Plymouth, and two Calder Cups with the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  His lowest save percentage in any of those postseason appearances is .920.  He also won the Jack Butterfield trophy in 2009 as the Calder Cup MVP.  The 23 year old has proven he can play in pressure situations.

Semyon Varlamov also has quality credentials and would certainly give the Capitals a great chance of success this post season.  Right off the bat, one must look at the NHL playoff experience Varlamov has.  Varlamov was the man in net for each of the last two post seasons for the Caps.  Before you say “well look what happened to the Caps each of the last two seasons”, take a moment to remember how well Varlamov played.  Varlamov was not responsible for any of the previous playoff disappointments.  Despite being just 10-9 in his career in the playoffs, he boasts a solid .915 save percentage and 2.49 goals against.  Varlamov’s numbers this season are especially impressive despite missing lots of time with injuries.   Varlamov is currently 6th in the NHL in save percentage (.923) and goals against average (2.26).  If not for the injuries, Varlamov probably would have been the team’s number one goalie this season.  Varlamov appears to be healthy now, and will see plenty of action in the final two weeks of the season.  Varlamov also has another bit more motivation than the other two.  Varlamov will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season.  His play in the postseason could potentially have an impact on the dollars the Caps are willing to give Varlamov.  Neuvirth has been re-signed, so we know he will be in a Caps sweater for years to come.  I anticipate Varlamov will as well, but if he sputters in the post season, and can’t remain healthy, Varlamov’s future in D.C. could become a bit cloudier.  All the more reason to play well.

Braden Holtby is certainly making his case to be the goalie chose by Bruce Boudreau.  Holtby has taken the NHL by storm, winning player of the week honors last week.  The Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native is now 10-2-2 this season with a .934 save percentage and a paltry 1.79 goals against average.  He has two shutouts in the 14 games he’s played this season.  What is even more impressive is Holtby’s play against teams currently in a playoff position.  He is 5-0-2 against teams that would qualify for the playoffs if they started today.  Holtby’s GAA is more than a goal better than Neuvrith’s GAA against playoff teams.  Holtby takes his game to another level against good team in the NHL.  That is worth considering and should play a role in whether Holtby’s number is called in the postseason.

All three goalies are playing well enough to get the nod in the post season.  But to me, Michal Neuvirth is the guy the Caps should go with.  His consistency throughout the course of the season puts him atop the list in my view.  He has been the guy called upon by Boudreau throughout the year, and he has delivered in almost every situation.  If Neuvirth falters, Varlamov is more than ready to pick up pieces and put them back together for the Caps.

I love Braden Holtby.  He has been fantastic in his 14 games this season.  But I am not yet ready to place him in the pressure cooker that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Both Neuvrith and Varlamov served their apprenticeships in Hershey and had post season success.  Holtby needs to do the same.  Holtby’s time will come sooner rather than later.  There is a real possibility that Holtby is the Caps’ goalie of the future.  He has proven that he can be.  But with just 14 games of NHL experience, I don’t feel he is the best option yet for the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The playoffs are as pressure packed as anything, but playing for the Capitals in the playoffs is different.  The Capitals have a huge monkey to get off their chest this spring.  This will be most anticipated playoffs in the organization’s history.  Their reputation is on the line; that reputation being that the Caps can’t win in the post season.  I’m not ready to throw that additional pressure onto the shoulders of Braden Holtby.

Who do you think the Capitals goalie should be this post season?

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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.

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  1. Marshall C says:

    Honestly, I would go with Holtby, at least to start Game 1. I agree with you on the playoffs bringing a lot of pressure, but he’s played in some big games this season and I would hope that he could handle it. I would back him up with Neuvirth, who’s been solid all season yet shaky at times. Neuvirth is a great goaltender, but sometimes it just seems like he can’t come up with the big saves when the team needs them the most. Varlamov is the only question mark in this whole goalie situation. I know hes been injured off and on the whole year, but he just hasn’t seemed very confident or in control. I know he was good in the playoffs the last 2 seasons, but if he doesn’t catch fire the last 2 weeks of the season or isn’t 100% healthy, I probably wouldn’t want him in my top 2 for the playoffs. If Neuvirth starts then it will most likely be Varlamov backing him up, but as a Caps fan I’d much rather see Holtby in net for the playoffs (at least to start).

  2. Fred Poulin says:

    The Caps will most likely go with Neuvirth as their starter in the playoffs as Holtby was sent down to Hersey and Varlamov has been to inconsistent this season because of injuries. Holtby is the goaltender of the future, but he needs to get more experience in the AHL.

  3. Zach says:

    Holtby’s shutout are against Edmonton and Montreal. Edmonton definitely not a playoff team.

  4. Jeff Benson says:

    Which one is available in a trade after the season? That’s what I want to know.

    • Jeremy Scriven says:

      Great question Jeff. Holtby isn’t going anywhere for sure. His future is just to bright. Varly is an RFA, so offer sheets are always a possibility.