Jack’s latest column for SB Nation DC.
The Washington Capitals aren’t used to sparse home crowds lustily booing them on a routine basis. However, that is what has happened on multiple occasions in light of some uncharacteristic regular-season struggles in 2011.
The Caps are 10 days removed from an humiliating 6-0 defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers. The loss marked their fifth loss in eight contests and their supposed talent was in as much question as their commitment to playing a full 60 minutes every game. An anemic power play and the absence of a second-line center were being exposed nightly, while the overall attitude on the ice reeked of complacency.
What a difference a week makes.
George McPhee made all the right moves on trade deadline Monday, giving disgruntled fans reason to cheer as the Capitals have re-emerged as Stanley Cup contenders, winning four straight heading into Monday’s big matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The power play remains a concern, but as Dennis Wideman plays catch-up, the scoring totals with the man advantage will increase. Jason Arnott has taken the pressure off of 19-year old center Marcus Johansson, and Alex Ovechkin is beginning to revert back to his superstar self. Everything is looking up for the Capitals.
But with the playoffs on the horizon there remains one last decision, which could very well be the most important one. To embark upon a successful postseason run, Bruce Boudreau must select a starting goalie to complete the identity crisis puzzle.
Boudreau has the unenviable task of choosing between Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, both excellent this season. The competition has gone under the radar for much of the year as the Caps have been preoccupied with other issues, but each has been impressive.
Neuvirth has started 11 of the past 13 games, posting a save percentage of .906. He’s allowed 24 goals and posted a pair of shutouts in that span, and his 22 wins are a Capitals rookie record. Overall, he’s played in 40 of Washington’s 66 games and should be the the favorite to win the job. Confidence isn’t a problem, as he has been aggressive in his crease, positioning himself well for such a young player. He also possesses the mental fortitude Varlamov struggles to maintain.
The 22-year old Varlamov had a dynamic month of January, where he surrendered 13 goals in seven starts. He is in the top ten in goals against (2.27) and save percentage (.923), and manned the crease for the Capitals Winter Classic victory over the Penguins. Yet for all his potential, the injury bug has hampered him constantly throughout his career. He sat out for most of the first two months of the season with a recurring groin injury and then hurt his knee in February. Currently he is listed as day-to-day, a common occurrence the past two seasons.
Perhaps Varlamov’s loss is Neuvirth’s gain, as the latter’s recent performance could help make Boudreau’s choice easier. But both goalies have shown an ability to be the number one guy between the pipes and it has been a see-saw battle. With time winding down in this regular season, it’s Boudreau’s move.