Who Will Win the Battle in Net for the Washington Capitals

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIFebruary 8, 2013

Who Will Win the Battle in Net for the Washington Capitals

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    As the Washington Capitals 2013 season continues to spiral out of control, the question as to who will win the battle in net has become a virtual afterthought.

    After all, the team has not scored more than three goals in any game so far this year. With that as a reality, Braden Holtby or Michal Neuvirth would have to be pitching shutouts very frequently for the Caps to be victorious.

    Obviously, with a 2-8-1 record, neither goalie has been shutting out anyone so far.

    Thursday night in Pittsburgh, things may have hit rock bottom, as Neuvirth was pulled after giving up a bad second goal, and Holtby allowed three more as the Caps were blown out by the Pens for the second time in less than a week.

    Yes, these are tough times in D.C.

    Nevertheless, the question of whether Holtby or Neuvirth will emerge as the Capitals No. 1 goalie is an important one.

    Ever since Olaf Kolzig's final season in D.C. in 2008, the Caps have not had much luck finding any sort of stability in net.

    They went from Cristobal Huet to Jose Theodore to Semyon Varlamov to Tomas Vokoun—and none of these goalies could provide the Caps with the same long-term stability that Kolzig had given them for a decade.

    It is something that every team in the NHL, including the Caps, looks for each and every year. Every NHL team wants to find the next Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy or Grant Fuhr.

    The Caps had to feel like they found their goalie of the future after the tremendous effort that Braden Holtby put forth during the 2012 NHL playoffs.

    But optimism has turned into a sort of deja vu, as Holtby has faltered early this season, as has the rest of the team.

    It is a familiar refrain for the Caps who saw similar strong playoff performances from Varlamov and Neuvirth not translate into regular season success the following year.

    But, at 2-8-1, finding a goalie of the future is not nearly as important as finding the goalie of the present.

    The Caps are giving up 3.73 goals per game and are ranked 29th in the NHL in goals allowed.

    They are officially the worst team in the NHL with just five points. Something has to change and it must start with the Caps getting some consistent play in net from the goalies.

    Recently, I wrote an article exploring whether Holtby or Neuvirth should get more time in net in 2013.

    In this article, I take a look at which Caps goalie will ultimately win the battle in net this year—including some possible potential goalies who could, in theory, end up in D.C. before the season ends.

Other Options?

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    After Thursday's debacle, it would be naive for anyone to presume that the conversation as to who will win the Caps' battle in net this year is limited to only Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby

    Indeed, after the Caps were smashed by Pittsburgh for the second time in less than a week, perhaps George McPhee would be wise to get on the phone with the Vancouver Canucks General Manager Mike Gillis.

    It was on Feb. 3, during the Caps 6-3 loss to the Pens, that Gillis was spotted at Verizon Center. Naturally, this led to all sorts of rumors about a pending trade between the Caps and Canucks for Roberto Luongo (AOL Sporting News).

    McPhee quickly shot down those rumors, as he indicated that the Caps would not be willing to absorb the contract of Luongo (Pro Hockey Talk).

    Maybe there is truth to that, but perhaps not.

    The Pro Hockey Talk article also posed an interesting query that if the Caps could not absorb Luongo's contract, then perhaps it could do something to execute a trade for Cory Schneider.

    However, in that same article, Gillis indicated he had not even considered trading Schneider.

    Again, maybe...maybe not.

    While the idea of the Caps trading for Luongo or Schneider has a certain amount of sex appeal, one would have to question how practical such a move would be if the hope was to save a season that might very well already be lost.

    In fact, if the Caps' season continues along its present crash-and-burn-path, then perhaps their answers lie from within—within the organization that is.

    And if  Holtby and Neuvirth are going to continue to struggle as they have, then perhaps it makes sense for the Caps to turn to one, or both, of their goalies in Hershey to see what they can do.

    One of those goalies is Dany Sabourin. Some Caps fans will recall that Sabourin was the backup to Holtby during his great playoff run last spring.

    Sabourin has played in Hershey the past two-and-a-half seasons. Leading into the 2012-13 season, Sabourin had played in 60 games and complied a record of 32-21-5 with three other wins being classified as shootout wins. He had a 2.61 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage.

    This season, Sabourin again found himself as Holtby's backup as Holtby played in Hershey during the lockout. Still, he has played in 17 games this season and has a 7-7-1 record with one other win being labeled a shootout victory. His goals-against-average is a 2.54 and his save percentage is a .913.

    Those numbers aren't too bad and with the way the Caps are struggling, why not give a guy like Sabourin a serious look?

    Or perhaps the Caps take a look at the other goalie in Hershey, Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer is a rookie and has only played in seven games for the Bears so far. He does have quite a bit of playing experience in the ECHL, and he excelled there.

    Thus far in seven games, Grubauer has a 3-3-0 record with an additional win being of the shootout variety. He has a 1.89 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Those are pretty impressive numbers, and at some point during this rapidly imploding season, perhaps turning to Grubauer to see what he can do would make sense.

    By way of comparison, Holtby played in 25 games for Hershey this year and had a 12-12-1 record with a 2.14 goals-against-average and a .932 save percentage. That has not exactly translated well to the NHL this year so, obviously, there are no guarantees that either Sabourin or Grubauer would be able to help at all.

    But, again, what do the Caps have to lose at this point?

    By no means am I suggesting that Sabourin or Grubauer will play as much as Holtby or Neuvirth will this year, nor should they.

    But if either one can come in and play well, then perhaps an option other than  Holtby or Neuvirth will emerge as the answer in net for the Caps for the 2013-14 season.

Is Braden Holtby the Answer?

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    What has happened to Braden Holtby this season?

    Wasn't Holtby supposed to be the long-term solution to the Caps' goaltending issue? After his playoff performance last spring it sure seemed that way.

    Holtby, had just out-played Tim Thomas and led the Caps to a stunning upset of the defending champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

    He then very nearly repeated that feat against Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist and the top-seeded New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The Caps eventually fell in seven games, but a playoff hero had been born—or so it seemed.

    Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average during the 2012 NHL playoffs (ESPN), third best amongst playoff goalies who played in  ore than 10 games.

    Holtby also had a .935 save percentage, which was second best among playoff goalies who played in more than 10 playoff games.

    It sure seemed like Holtby was going to be the long term solution in goal for the Caps, but things have not worked out so well this season.

    Things started badly on opening night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Holtby surrendered six goals on 34 shots. He had a .824 save percentage. 

    Holtby would get the next start against the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets beat the Caps, 4-2 (ESPN). Against the Jets, the Caps gave up 39 shots on goal, and Holtby stopped 35 of them. He had a .897 save percentage in that game, so there was some level of improvement.

    But it was the quality of the goals being let in that was a concern. Some of the goals were rather soft. One goal banked in off his skate. Another one just seemed to somehow trickle into the net behind him.

    In both games, Holtby's glove side was a target and a weakness.

    Holtby took a back seat to Michal Neuvirth for the next five games. He returned to action a week ago against the Philadelphia Flyers. Holtby played quite well and looked like his former self as the Caps edged the Flyers, 3-2, to capture their second win of the season (ESPN).

    Against the Flyers, Holtby stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced for a .935 save percentage. He made some good saves and kept the high powered Flyers off balance for much of the game.

    But then came Feb. 3 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and this was probably Holtby's worst outing so far.

    Holtby allowed six goals on just 26 shots against for a pretty dreadful .769 save percentage as the Pens crushed the Caps 6-3 at Verizon Center (NHL.com).

    A few of the goals Holtby allowed were soft.

    On Thursday night, Holtby came in to relieve an ineffective Neuvirth. I suppose coach Adam Oates felt that Holtby would respond and want a shot at redemption against the Pens.

    Well, Holtby gave up three goals on 17 shots and took the loss. He had a .824 save percentage, which was slightly better than  Neuvirth's .818 at the time he was pulled.

    And, to be fair, you really can't fault Holtby for any of the three goals he allowed. Unlike the game on Feb. 3, none of the goals Thursday night could really be classified as soft. Along the way, he made the best save any Caps' goaltender has made this year when he robbed Sidney Crosby of a goal late in the second period.

    So Holtby's record now sits at 1-4 for the season. He has a 4.74 goals against average, which ranks 42nd in the NHL. He has a .857 save percentage, which ranks 41st.

    No, none of that is what anyone would call quality goaltending.

    Nevertheless, Coach Oates turned to Holtby Thursday night at the first sign that Neuvirth was not on his game. Was that a show of confidence in Holtby or a vote of no-confidence in Neuvirth? It's hard to say.

    What can be said about Holtby is that so far he has not looked good. He looks nothing like he did in the playoffs last spring. He shows flashes of his old form, such as the save on "Sid The Kid" Thursday night.

    But that is all we get, glimpses and flashes of the Holtby who captivated all of us in the 2012 playoffs.

    That is all in the past. If the Caps will have any hope of clawing their way back into the mix this year, the Braden Holtby of the present must be as good as the quickly fading memory of his glorious past.

Is Michal Neuvirth the Answer?

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    The roller coaster ride that has been Michal Neuvirth's career with the Washington Capitals has definitely continued here in 2013.

    Most Caps' fans will recall that Neuvirth first staked his claim as the Caps' goalie of the future during the 2011 playoffs. He was absolutely magnificent during the Caps 4-1 series win over the New York Rangers in the 2011 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

    He then, like the rest of the team, came up rather small in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as the Caps were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Over that nine-game stretch, Neuvirth had a 2.34 goals against average and a .912 save percentage (ESPN).

    Last season, Neuvirth played in a backup role to Tomas Vokoun. He played in 38 games and had a 13-13-5 record (ESPN). He had a 2.82 goals against average and a .903 save percentage with three shutouts.

    As the playoffs approached, and with Vokoun dealing with an injury, it seemed as though the Caps would have to lean heavily on Neuvirth once again if the team was going to have any chance at winning that elusive Stanley Cup.

    But, Neuvirth was injured as well, Braden Holtby got the start in net and staked his own claim as being the Caps next big thing in net.

    Neuvirth never bought into the hype surrounding Holtby though.

    During the summer of 2012, Neuvirth made some rather unflattering comments about the Caps' presumed new superstar goaltender.

    In an interview conducted with Czech website iSport.cz, and translated by several sites (including Russianmachineneverbreaks.com) Neuvirth said the following about Braden Holtby:

    It’s true that until now, I have never been an official number one. But I have played just over a hundred games in NHL. That’s nothing. I’m starting the season sure that I want to play forty/fifty games and I am really sure that I have the weakest competition (Braden Holtby) I’ve ever had. I will try to be number one goalie this season. Finally!

    Obviously, Neuvirth was throwing down the gauntlet and it would not take long before he got his chance to prove his worth. After Holtby struggled so badly in the first two games, coach Adam Oates turned to Neuvirth in what, to a certain extent, seemed to be a "put-up or shut-up" moment.

    The first game did not go well.  The Caps were routed by the Montreal Canadiens (ESPN), on home ice, 4-1. Neuvirth gave up four goals on just 22 shots for a .818 save percentage. He did, however, make some key stops that prevented the final score from being uglier than it was.

    But the next game against the New Jersey Devils was a much stronger effort from Neuvirth. The Caps rallied from two goals down in the third period to tie the game at 2-2 before ultimately losing in overtime (ESPN).

    Neuvirth played incredibly well against the Devils as he stopped 32 of 35 shots for a .914 save percentage. In overtime, he was nothing short of spectacular as he stopped seven of eight shots and made some tremendous saves up until Ilya Kovalchuk's game winner, a shot that would have beaten most NHL goaltenders.

    Coach Oates rode the hot hand and played Neuvirth in the Caps next game against the Buffalo Sabres. Neuvirth responded by leading the Caps to their first win of the season, 3-2 over the Sabres (ESPN).

    Neuvirth played well again stopping 22 of the 24 shots he faced for a .917 save percentage.

    At that point, it really seemed as though Neuvirth was in firm control of the Caps goaltending job. But, as with most things related to the Caps, the wheels kind of fell off from there.

    In the next game against the Ottawa Senators, Neuvirth and the Caps could not hold a 2-0 lead and fell to the Sens, 3-2.

    Neuvirth played pretty well in that game stopping 24 of the 27 shots he faced for a .889 save percentage.

    Neuvirth would get the next start against Toronto at the Air Canada Centre. Once again Neuvirth and the Caps would blow a third period lead allowing Toronto to rally and claim a 3-2 win for the Leafs.

    Neuvirth played very well in this game as the Leafs really dominated the Caps. Neuvirth kept the Caps in it by stopping 37 of the 40 shots he faced for a .925 save percentage. Yet, it was still not enough.

    Holtby played the next two games and Neuvirth was called upon to stop the bleeding in a rematch with the Maple Leafs. In this game though, Neuvirth and Tom Poti had a major communication error that led to the first Toronto goal.

    The Caps never recovered and Toronto won, again, by the final of 3-2. Neuvirth was not as strong in this game as he only faced 21 shots and could only stop 18 of them for a .857 save percentage. The game winning goal by Korbinian Holzer is the type of shot that Neuvirth has to turn away.

    And then came Thursday night in Pittsburgh. After a solid first period, Neuvirth gave up two goals and was pulled by Coach Oates. While the second goal allowed to Pascal Dupuis was somewhat soft, it did not seem like the type of egregious display of net-minding that would warrant getting yanked.

    But that is what happened and now the questions as to whether Adam Oates still has confidence in Neuvirth have to be asked.

    For the 2013 season thus far, Neuvirth has a 1-4-1 record. He has a 3.05 goals-against- average which ranks him 30th in the NHL. He has a .889 save percentage which has him ranked 32nd.

    Statistically, he is marginally better than Holtby. But whether Coach Oates still has confidence in him is the big question.

    Which goalie gets the start Saturday, at home, against the Florida Panthers, might shed some light on the whole subject.

So Who Wins This Battle?

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    First off, I do not believe the Caps will make a trade for a goalie during the season. It just does not make a lot of sense. Expect major changes to be made if the season ends without a playoff berth. This could involve a trade for a goalie. It would almost certainly mean that Adam Oates loses his job.

    I do, however, expect to see Dany Sabourin and/or Philipp Grubauer get some playing time this year if the Caps' season continues to go down its current path. I think the Caps would be rather foolish not to take a look at one, or both, of those guys if there is no longer a realistic chance for a playoff berth.

    What is the worst that could happen?

    Barring all of that, I think Braden Holtby eventually comes out on top in this battle. I really think Michal Neuvirth getting pulled after giving up just two goals on Thursday night tells you where Adam Oates' head is.

    Did Holtby get pulled when he let in six goals—and some of them being worse than what Neuvirth allowed on Thursday—against the Penguins on Super Bowl Sunday?

    No.

    At the first sign of trouble against the Pens on Thursday, what did Oates do? He yanked Neuvirth and went back to the guy who had just been lit up by the Penguins four days earlier.

    If that is not a clear sign as to in whom Oates has confidence, then I don't know what is.

    Of course, if Oates is fired then all bets are off.

    But if Oates finishes the season, I expect to see more of Holtby and less of Neuvirth.

    With any luck, Holtby can play himself back into the form he had during the 2012 playoffs.

    Unfortunately, luck is something the Caps have not had much of so far this season.