A lot of the conversation around the Caps over the past few years has centered around their goaltenders – and for good reason. Ever since Olie Kolzig, long-time stalwart between the pipes, began to lose a step with age, the situation in net has been in a consistent state of flux. Claims have been made to the #1 spot for the briefest of windows but never held for any extended period of time.
Amazingly, it seemed to have shaken out earlier this season. Jose Theodore came into camp as the #1 goalie and started out hot; when he faltered, young Semyon Varlamov was there to pick up the slack and then some. When one stumbled, the other compensated. The perfect goaltending tandem.
Alas, perfection is fleeting.
With the news that Semyon Varlamov has re-injured himself – and on his conditioning stint, no less – the Caps suddenly find themselves in the awkward position of having a #1 goaltender who isn’t used as a #1 and an unproven kid who isn’t ready to be used as a #1.
When Michal Neuvirth was first called up to backup Theodore, he did exactly that: back up the starter. Jose was playing well, including a dominant performance against his former team in Colorado, so it seemed fitting that Neuvirth would get one game every three or four, and take the second half of back-to-backs as he did in Edmonton.
When he earned the win in a wild comeback affair against the Oilers, however, it seemed to signal to the coaching staff that he was the "hot hand"…and he was back in net against the Northeast Division-leading Buffalo Sabres a few nights later. And then again as the Caps hosted the best in the East, the New Jersey Devils.
The reasoning was threefold: the team needed to see Neuvirth as much as possible while he was here; he’d already won two straight; and since he’d played two straight, he was better equipped to handle the rigors of a third straight game over a cold goalie.
In the short-term, that reasoning is fairly sound – go with the hot hand, etc. Long-term, however, it’s fairly short-sighted.
Playing Neuvirth while we have him is fine; get the kid his games, including one against a tough opponent, because the only way to gain experience is...well, to gain experience. But consider this - if Theodore had gotten the call in one of the games, either against the Sabres or the Devils, would he have been as cold for the Hurricanes game? Would he have had more confidence? There’s no way to know after the fact, but my gut says yes.
Whether that would have been enough to win a game behind a shell-shocked team that once again took their opponent too lightly, that’s harder to say.
And what about the San Jose game - as someone who faced the Sharks a time or two during his Avalanche days, would Theodore have been victimized as often by their attack, let alone the penalty shots? Would he have known about Ryane Clowe's "one move" or been more familiar with Joe Thornton, a frequent opponent on both the East and West coasts? You make the call.
No one's denying that Neuvirth has been a more than adequate fill-in for now, or that he won't someday be a very good if not great NHL goalie. He did earn three wins in his three straight starts, after all - and he did outduel the great Martin Brodeur. But hot hands don’t last forever, of this we know for sure. To leave a guy on the bench for three, four, five starts in a row (especially your #1 guy making $4.5 million) does nothing to insure that he’ll be ready to go, if and when the hot hand cools off.
The fact is that the Caps have put themselves in a rather precarious position by pinning their current starter hopes on a 21-year-old with minimal NHL experience, while beating down the only guy on the roster who has actually carried a team for any extended period of time. Keeping a chip on Theodore's shoulder is one thing; having him go into games cold and with no confidence is another. And Theo – like most goalies – is a slave to his mental demons as much as he is to his physical ability. Confidence is key, and right now he's got none.
Varlamov’s return, barring further injury, could be anywhere from a few days (the ol’ "day-to-day" villain rears its ugly head) to two weeks away. That’s three to seven games right there where the Caps will again be relying on a tandem of Theodore and Neuvirth. Neuvirth should get some time, for sure; but if Theodore is, in fact, the #1 goaltender right now, you have to play him like one.
If he steps up, great. If he doesn't, it's not too late to correct the situation - by whatever means necessary.
Because come March or April, we won't have that luxury.