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.

Senators, Panthers fail to gain in Eastern playoff races

OTTAWA, CANADA - FEBRUARY 7: Jay Harrison #44 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates his game winning overtime goal with team mate Jeff Skinner #53, during an NHL game at Scotiabank Place on February 7, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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PHT already touched on the Florida Panthers falling to the Calgary Flames on Friday, but in tandem with the Ottawa Senators losing to the Carolina Hurricanes, it makes for a night of teams failing to gain valuable points out East.

With the Montreal Canadiens failing lately, the Senators had a chance to take first place in the Atlantic by tying the Habs in points while holding games in hand. Instead, they’ll need to wait.

For the sake of simplicity, here are the Atlantic rankings, with emphasis on the top five.

1. Canadiens – 72 points in 61 games played
2. Senators – 70 in 59
3. Maple Leafs – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Sabres and Lightning have 62 in 60, Red Wings have 58 in 60

You can see the Panthers hanging around the perimeter of the top three; a point or two would have made them a bigger threat to Toronto and Boston. Alas, even with a heavier slate of home games lately, Florida has lost two straight at home.

Here’s an updated look at the wild card races after the Panthers failed to make up some ground:

1. Blue Jackets – 79 in 58, more concerned with Metro races
2. Islanders – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Flyers – 63 in 60

Tiebreaker situations would have meant that the Panthers would have ended tonight technically outside of the playoffs anyway, but a win or even a “charity point” congests an already snug situation. Instead, they stayed put and wasted a game.

Ottawa’s still in a solid situation to overtake Montreal or at least maintain a round of home-ice advantage as the second seed in the Atlantic. So while both teams are kicking themselves for their losses, the Panthers have more to be upset about.

Ultimately, some of the biggest winners in the East were teams that didn’t play or that have a lot less to play for.

(Perhaps the Hurricanes feel a little more optimistic, by the way, as 58 points in 57 games played means they could at least theoretically fight their way back into the discussion.)

Road warriors: Flames move to first West wild card spot with win vs. Panthers

SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Troy Brouwer #36 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his second period goal against the Florida Panthers with Lance Bouma #17 and Matt Stajan #18 at the BB&T Center on February 24, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The road has been doing both the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers quite a bit of good lately.

Calgary moved to the first wild card spot on Friday after beating the Panthers in Florida by a score of 4-2. So far, they’ve grabbed at least a point in every game during a road trip that ends in Carolina on Sunday:

Feb. 18: 2-1 OT loss at Vancouver
Feb. 21: 6-5 OT win at Nashville
Feb. 23: 3-2 win at Tampa Bay
Tonight: 4-2 win at Florida

You can’t totally blame the Panthers if they almost miss their road trip.

They rattled off five straight wins through what seemed like a brutal road haul on paper, but now they’ve lost back-to-back home games in regulation. With five of six and six of seven slated in Sunrise, the Panthers need to make the most of these opportunities. So far … not so good.

Here’s how the West wild card situations look now:

1. Flames – 68 points in 62 GP
2. Predators – 67 points in 60 GP

Kings – 62 in 60 GP
Jets – 62 in 63 GP

(The Blues could easily slip below the Predators into the wild card spot, as they also have 67 points in 60 games but hold wins and ROW tiebreaker advantages.)

So, Calgary might not manage to maintain its hold over the first wild card spot, but this streak makes a playoff berth look far more likely.

Capitals could make home-ice advantage a serious edge in playoffs

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 01: Brett Connolly #10 of the Washington Capitals celebrates his goal with teammates against the Boston Bruins during the third period at Verizon Center on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Look, there’s no escaping the naysayers who will dismiss just about any Washington Capitals accomplishments with snark about past playoff letdowns.

All the Capitals can do is march forward and lock down as many edges as they can.

With 89 standings points after a tight 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, the Capitals look increasingly likely to have home-ice advantage either through the East (seven-point edge on the Penguins or the entire playoffs (five-point edge on idle Wild, who only hold a game in hand on the Caps).

Now, it’s fair to argue that home-ice (or home-court) advantage matters less in hockey than some other sports. Sure, you can line-match more often with the last change, among other advantages. Still, the biggest edges might be mental.

That said … those small edges might be enough for a team as loaded – and with as much urgency – as this rendition of the Capitals.

Heeding the call at the Verizon Center

They’ve now won 13 games in a row at the Verizon Center, improving their overall home record to 25-5-1.

The Capitals are still a strong team on the road (16-7-6), yet that home record is lofty. It also could come in awfully handy, particularly if they face off against the Penguins again. Pittsburgh’s 24-4-3 home mark contrasts sharply with a more modest 13-10-5 road record.

Perhaps this talk is all small potatoes. Still, when you consider how close things have been – in this age of parity, and in the extremely competitive Metropolitian Division specifically – it could be quite the edge.

In short, the Capitals are a pretty scary group possibly with home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. At least as of right now.

As far as the Oilers go, they’re locked in a tight race for second in the Pacific, as the Ducks currently hold the ROW tiebreaker. Grabbing at least a standings point in this one would have helped … but that’s a tall order against the Caps in their own backyard.

It wasn’t all good news for Washington, tonight:

Loss vs. Pens at Stadium Series could push Flyers to sell at trade deadline

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28:  Chris Pryor, Director of Scouting (R), and Ron Hextall General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers (L) sit at their team table on Day Two of the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Is a cross-state, historic NHL rivalry not enough to drum up interest in Saturday’s 2017 Stadium Series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins? Maybe a trade deadline hook will do it for you.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports, Flyers GM Ron Hextall already rules his team out as buyers. That leaves two options, really: standing pat or going into “sell mode.”

Hextall provides an interesting nugget in that regard: it might just come down to what happens against the Penguins tomorrow, via NHL.com’s Adam Kimelman:

It seems odd to imagine that the difference between generating zero versus two standings points might dictate a team’s direction, but it also shows the power of parity in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Granted, it’s not like Hextall locks himself into one direction based on the result. Still, it sounds like that game could have some power in swaying his decision.

The Flyers have some interesting trade chips if they do decide to make a move. Michal Neuvirth fears being moved, while Steve Mason at least needs a new contract, leaving their goaltending future up to question.

There are some other interesting UFAs, particularly in defensemen Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto.

Some Flyers fans believe that they should indeed be sellers, though it’s tough to imagine many of them rooting for the Penguins to win just to make it happen.