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Capitals confident in whichever rookie goalie starts

by Dan Rosen
Washington forward Brooks Laich says he usually doesn't find out which goalie he'll be playing in front of until he shows up for the game. Even then he doesn't care or pay too much attention to the starting lineup.

Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby are one and the same for the Capitals -- a goalie who gives them a chance to win. The Capitals' skaters say the goalies are different in subtle ways, so the fact that there isn't a defined No. 1 in Washington makes no difference to them.

"All three of those guys, and this is honest, it doesn't change our team one bit as far as our mindset," Laich said. "Whether Neuvy is in net, Varly is in net or Holtby, I think we play a solid defensive game, don't give up a lot of chances and whoever is in net comes up with the saves when we need them."

Neuvirth, considered the most easygoing of the three, has won 24 games for the Capitals in his rookie season. Varlamov and Holtby, also rookies, have won 10 each. It's the first time in franchise history that the Capitals have three goalies with at least 10 wins. They've combined to sport a 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

Washington is close to clinching its fourth straight Southeast Division title and is two points behind Philadelphia for first in the Eastern Conference.

"Do we even think about our goaltender anymore?" Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner asked, repeating an question. "Not really, because they're all good and that's all that matters. It doesn't matter which guy is in. How do I say this without jinxing us -- they've all been playing very consistent hockey for us."

Based on playing time when he's healthy, Neuvirth would seem like the odds-on favorite to start Game 1 in the playoffs, but that could change in the six games between now and the end of the regular season.

What if Varlamov gets hot? What if Neuvirth or Varlamov get hurt or sick and Holtby comes back from Hershey, gets another start and plays well again?

Based on recent events, you'd have to at least consider that a possibility.

Holtby was the NHL's First Star of the Week ending March 13, but it wasn't enough to keep him in Washington because Varlamov got healthy and reclaimed his place on the depth chart. With Neuvirth falling ill this past weekend, Holtby was summoned from Hershey to start Saturday in Montreal. He made 18 saves for his second shutout, but a few hours later was back on the road to Hershey.

"It's up to Bruce (Boudreau), what he feels like, but the hottest goalie should start," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom told "That's what Bruce has to think about. We have confidence in all three, and all three of them have good confidence. They're all doing good now, so it doesn't really matter."

So what is Bruce thinking about?

"I think they're all three really good goalies so it doesn't matter," Boudreau told "But there is a plan on how they go, how they feel. It's just not random when we decide to play a guy."

Whatever the plan is, it could get tossed once the playoffs begin. Boudreau has proven he's not afraid to make a quick goaltending change in the playoffs, so Neuvirth, Varlamov and possibly even Holtby have to realize whoever gets the start in Game 1 is not guaranteed the start in Game 2.

"I just like to feel comfortable that every night we're putting a goalie in that we feel will win us the game," Boudreau said.

According to NHL Network analyst Craig Button, don't be shocked if Boudreau pulls an Al MacNeil and uses Holtby.

As the coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, MacNeil decided to use a young and inexperienced Ken Dryden over veteran Rogie Vachon in a first-round playoff series against the big, bad Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Dryden, a late-season call-up from the minors, wound up winning the Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy. He won the Calder Trophy the following season.

"In the absence of one clear-cut guy I don't know if it's necessary to pinpoint one guy and ride with him," Button told "It's not like (Alex) Ovechkin or (Mike) Green is saying get me a goalie. It's an embarrassment of riches."

Boudreau said the only reason Holtby is the goalie on the shuttle between Hershey and D.C. is because of age and professional experience. He's 21 whereas Varlamov will be 23 in a month and Neuvirth just turned 23 last week.

Varlamov was fast-tracked to the NHL two seasons ago because the Capitals had a depth problem in net. He became a playoff star after Boudreau gave Jose Theodore the hook early in the first-round series against the Rangers. With Varlamov playing for the Capitals, Neuvirth paid his dues and won back-to-back AHL championships with the Bears.

Holtby was Neuvirth's backup last season.

"If it was reversed and Neuvy or Varly was a year behind, they'd probably be (in Hershey) and Holtby would be here," Boudreau said. "His time will come, but if Holtby came back because of injury we wouldn't have a problem playing him. We don't think he's any less qualified than the other guys.

"I don't think it's that important that we identify one guy as the guy because we could change them. We have 1, 1-A and 1-B all ready to play."

Depending on your level of cynicism, that's either the attraction or the downfall of the Capitals' goaltending situation.

They haven't had an established No. 1 since Olaf Kolzig, and are instead relying on three youngsters who aren't too far removed from their teenage years. But trying to find one person inside the Capitals' dressing room, coaches' office or executive suites with a discerning voice would be a fool's errand.

Neuvirth, Varlamov or Holtby? It doesn't matter when you trust all three.

"Man, I usually don't even know until I show up at game time," Laich said. "We're not concerned."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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