Braden Holtby

Neuvirth to start against Wings, Boudreau waiting to decide playoff starter

Tonight’s Washington Capitals game will feature a change for the Southeast Division leaders—a change at goaltender. Scorching hot rookie Braden Holtby had been leading the Caps during their most recent stretch, but tonight will feature Michal Neuvirth between the pipes against Detroit. He’ll do his best to keep up with the unbelievable pace Holtby has set as of late.

Holtby started the 2nd period against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 7th and didn’t allow a goal in the following two periods, overtime, nor the shootout and has never looked back. He’s played in every game since, earning wins in all 5 games he’s appeared in recently. Last week, Holtby rode a 4-0 and 1.05 goals against becoming the NHL’s #1 star of the week.

Checking out the depth chart in Washington, the Capitals are sitting on an embarrassment of riches in net. Here’s a brief rundown of each goalie and their amazing statistics:

Michal Neuvirth: 22-10-4 with a .914 save percentage and 2.47 goals against avg
Semyon Varlamov: 10-8-4 with a .923 save percentage and 2.27 goals against avg
Braden Holtby: 9-2-2 with a .930 save percentage and 1.95 goals against avg

Neuvirth and Varlamov have been highly thought of prospects since they were drafted 34th and 23rd overall respectively. On the other hand, Holtby was a 4th round pick in the 2008 Draft. When the season started, he was with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL before earning a promotion to the AHL’s Hershey Bears. More stellar play and an injury opened the door for Holtby to show what he could do—and he’s run with the opportunity. Even though there are good, young goaltenders in the Capitals’ system, Holtby just continued to produce.

“[Other young goaltenders in organization] probably plays into everyone’s mind when they’re in the minors, if they’re going to get their shot. At the same time, I’ve always been a firm believer that if you’re good enough to play at a level of the NHL, you’ll get that shot. You don’t see many guys that go through their career with NHL skills that don’t get an opportunity. I was just trying to prove myself in Hershey and make sure that if I do get an opportunity, I’d be ready to give it my best shot.”

Coaches have a tendency to play it safe, lay low, and promote the status quo when their team has won 9 straight in the middle of a playoff race. They’ve ridden the surge to the top of the Southeast Division and are only a point behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. In this situation, Boudreau can either go with the guy who has playoff experience, the guy who has started most of the games this season, or the kid with the hot hand.

For his part, Boudreau isn’t ready to tip his hand quite yet.

“I don’t have to make that decision yet, so I’m really not doing it,” Boudreau said. “Every one of them we’ve put in has really excelled. Probably these next six or seven games will determine who’s going to be the starter in the playoffs for us, but right now we’ve got the three kids playing great and we give [Braden] Holtby a rest and see how somebody else can do the job.”

“I hate to be a historian on this, but in 1971 a kid got called up from the American League named Ken Dryden and played in the playoffs. I don’t think the pressure got to him and his career is history,” Boudreau said. “I see a lot of similarities in the Holtby, Dryden call ups, what their season’s been like and everything else.”

You have to love when a coach drops a reference from 40 years ago when thinking about the upside to a decision. But helping Boudreau out, both Cam Ward and Antti Niemi were rookie netminders who took over the starting jobs in the middle of the season—and both were able to help their teams lift the Stanley Cup when all was said and done.

The Capitals have drafted and groomed all three of these goaltenders to be successful in the NHL. Neuvirth has the best long-term record and Holtby has been unbelievable with his opportunity, but Semyon Varlamov had the best statistics before he was injured. Varlamov last played on February 20th, but he’s joined the team on their 6-game road trip signaling that he’s close to returning to the fold. It’ll be interesting to see what Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee decide to do with the thriving threesome down the stretch.

But the one thing we do know from Boudreau’s recent comments, is that this is, in fact, a three horse race.

Hitchcock believes Blues’ Allen is ‘locked up mentally’

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes the third period save against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on December 8, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Things were already rough for the St. Louis Blues and their goalies (particularly still-pretty-newly crowned No. 1 Jake Allen) heading into Thursday, but the Washington Capitals really highlighted those issues in a 7-3 thrashing.

Blues fans and management must be wondering, then: what’s wrong with their goalies, especially with Allen? Head coach Ken Hitchcock seems resigned to allowing him to fight through it, if nothing else.

“There’s a lot going on right now. … He’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchock said, according to Lou Korac of NHL.com. “What we see at practice, we like. That’s why we put him in quite frankly.”

Alex Pietrangelo did the typical deflecting thing, nothing that this is a “team” and that there are “no individuals.”

Still, Hitchcock’s longer press conference makes you wonder how much trust there is in Allen and Carter Hutton.

From Hitch’s perspective, it sure sounds like he believes that the Blues are over-correcting to try to limit “goals, shots.” By trying to do too much, they might be putting themselves in bad positions. And that might stem from a lack of confidence in the guys in net, or in the team’s work in their own zone overall.

Let’s be honest. As much as we can play chicken-or-the-egg as far as a defense’s impact on a goalie, it’s tough to explain away save percentages under .900 in the modern NHL. At some point, your team needs more stops.

With the races for the lower spots in the Western Conference’s playoff picture seemingly tightening up, the Blues don’t have a ton of time to figure this out.

Capitals shine glaring light on Blues’ goalie woes

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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If you’re reaction to the headline “Something is off about the St. Louis Blues” was “Yeah, their goaltending,” then Thursday only emboldened that opinion.

It wasn’t just that the Washington Capitals bombarded the Blues by a score of 7-3. It’s that they really didn’t need to fire a whole lot of shots on goal to get to seven.

Here’s a harsh rule of thumb: when both of your goalies play in a game and each one barely makes more saves than goals allowed, that’s an awful night. Take a look at what Jake Allen and Carter Hutton went through:

Allen: six saves, four goals allowed in 25:11 time on ice
Hutton: five saves, three goals allowed in 35:49

Allen got pulled from the contest twice, by the way. He’s been pulled from four games since Dec. 30. Woof.

Even before these horrendous performances, the Blues goalies have been shaky. Hutton came into tonight with an ugly .898 save percentage; Allen wasn’t much better with a .900 mark.

Those are the type of numbers that would make Dallas Stars fans cringe, or at least experience some uncomfortable familiarity.

Now, is it all on Hutton and Allen? Much like with the Stars’ embattled goalies, much of the struggles probably come down to a team struggling in front of them.

Even so, if you assign more of the blame to Allen and Hutton, nights like this Capitals thrashing definitely strengthen your argument. Yikes.

Rangers overwhelm Leafs, make life pretty easy for Lundqvist in win

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 19:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers faces a shot in the warm-up prior to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs in an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on January 19, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Heading into Thursday, many were wondering how the New York Rangers will handle Henrik Lundqvist‘s struggles. Instead, the focus shifted to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ difficulties, perhaps specifically in dealing with Morgan Rielly‘s absence.

The Rangers handily won this one 5-2, at least giving Lundqvist the win. He wasn’t especially busy, stopping 23 out of 25 shots, so you can probably file his story under “To be continued.”

Lundqvist wasn’t oblivious to his team’s impressive overall play.

Really, it was all about the waves of attackers the Rangers can send at opponents and the trouble that caused for the Maple Leafs. It wasn’t the easiest night for Frank Corrado, in particular, who took a couple costly penalties.

The Rangers’ next two games come in a road contest vs. the Red Wings on Sunday and a home game against the Kings on Monday. Perhaps those matches will serve as a better barometer for where Lundqvist’s really at, as he passed tonight’s test … but it wasn’t a particularly difficult one.

So, is Mike Condon actually really good? He certainly was against Columbus

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 8: Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators stands at the bench during a break in a game against the Edmonton Oilers at Canadian Tire Centre on January 8, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
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Considering their numbers heading in, many were perplexed when the Ottawa Senators essentially replaced Andrew Hammond with Mike Condon. Now many are perplexed by just how strong Condon’s often been for Ottawa.

Thursday might stand as the prime example that this guy could be better than many expected.

The Columbus Blue Jackets dominated much of the play, generating a 42-28 shots on goal advantage, but Ottawa ended up winning 2-0 tonight.

Condon already came into tonight with a solid save percentage (.915 before this shutout), and he’s now won four of his last five games. Three of his four career shutouts have come this season.

Ignoring his one relief appearance with Pittsburgh this season for the sake of simplicity, just consider his tough times with Montreal last season. He went 21-25-6 with a shaky .903 save percentage.

This marks just his 21st start and 23rd appearance of this season, so it’s not a guaranteee for future results. Still … it’s another example that goalies are as just about as unpredictable as they are crucial to a team’s fate.

More and more, it seems like Condon might just be a difference-maker, and in the positive sense this time around.