December 7, 2010

Hockey’s not High School and the Caps’ Goaltending Situation Isn’t a Popularity Contest

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ joy just may amount to Michal Neuvirth’s misery.

Neuvirth missed a chance to get in Washington Capitals head-coach Bruce Boudreau’s good graces on Monday when the Caps led the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 in the third period and ended up losing 5-4 in a shootout, an unfortunate twist of events that boils down to an ill-advised and badly timed error in judgment.

Think something along the lines of letting your guard down and that wimpy kid in gym class get in a free shot with the dodgeball and then getting surprised when he doesn’t just knock you out of the game, but on your ass for all the school to see. It’s a pain deep within the cockles of your heart that won’t subside until you get a chance to beat up that same kid in retaliation beyond all recognition. FYI, on a totally unrelated topic, the Leafs next play the Caps next January 22. Should be fun.

With the heart-wrenching defeat, Neuvirth can now expect teammate Semyon Varlamov to get another kick at the can when the Caps take on the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Monday marked the third-straight defeat for the Caps, who had lost to the Dallas Stars and Atlanta Thrashers beforehand, with losses credited to Neuvirth bookending one to Varlamov.

That isn’t to say the Capitals’ goaltending situation is lacklustre. The three-game losing streak is just one of two such low points this season for the Southeast division-leading Caps, who are an impressive 18-8-3. And, discounting the shootout-winning goal yesterday, the team has still only allowed nine goals in those three games, which, admittedly isn’t spectacular, but still amounts to a better goals-against average than that of the Tampa Bay Lightning since the start of the season, who wouldn’t know a starting goalie from Andre “Red Light” Racicot if a young Patrick Roy suddenly materialized in front of Steve Yzerman in complete hockey gear, asking to point him in the direction of Mike Vernon so he can go deal with some unfinished business.

In fact, the Capitals’ goaltending has been a breath of fresh air, just one example of a truly bizarro season thus far that has already seen Alexander Semin lead the team in goals, Alexander Ovechkin once go nine games without one, and Steven Stamkos somehow move past him in fans’ eyes as the second-best player in the game today. I think we can all agree Carey Price has usurped Sidney Crosby as number one, but that may just be my inner Habs fan talking.

In any case, since returning from injury, Varlamov has compiled a 4-2 record, with a 1.92 goals-against average, and a .934 save percentage. Neuvirth hasn’t exactly been a slouch, going 12-4-2, with a 2.66 GAA and .909 save percentage, but what once seemed like a certainty, that it was Neuvirth’s job to lose once Varlamov got his lower body in check following what must have been a few visits too many to the local bordello, is now embroiled in anything but.

"Okay... quickly, when no one's looking. Give me your helmet and then your jersey. This is the only way I'll get another start."
Varlamov has played himself back into the driver’s seat, meaning the next bend in the road is his through which to navigate. It’s the outcome most envisioned taking place when the Caps brass made the incredibly hard decision to let Jose Theodore walk last off-season. This one is considerably easier, however. You go with the more talented goalie, and that’s Varlamov.

Feel sorry for Neuvirth if you must, because Boudreau won’t, nor will anyone else, be looking to give him a break… even if he deserves one. There aren’t any phys-ed teachers looking to give everyone a chance with the ball here… just bullies looking for the upper hand and to crush you square between the eyes when you least expect it.

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