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Capitals confident kid goalies will excel

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com
George McPhee is a visionary. Not convinced? Then check out the goal crease of the Washington Capitals.

Seeing Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth there is precisely what the Capitals’ GM envisioned four years ago when he selected the goalies in the opening two rounds of the NHL Entry Draft.

Now there is a heated training-camp competition to determine which of the 22-year-old goalies deserves to start on opening night in Atlanta on Oct. 8. Really, though, this battle won't end at the conclusion of training camp. Barring injury, it's sure to continue right through the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We've been waiting for this opportunity with them because we're high on both of them," McPhee said. "We thought they should have both gone in the first round and felt fortunate that we got both of them. They've both had a couple years of pro experience and our strategy in signing Jose (Theodore) a couple of years ago was to sort of build that bridge to this point.

"Everything has gone well for these guys and we think they're really good. It could be a strength of our team this year."

Varlamov, who has 32 games of NHL experience and is 10-9 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 19 playoff games, was drafted 23rd in 2006. Neuvirth, who has experienced just five NHL games, but has won back-to-back Calder Cup titles with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears, was tabbed 11 picks later by McPhee.

Neuvirth made a strong bid to start the season with Washington last September following a solid training camp, but a hip injury derailed those plans and solidified Varlamov as the backup to the since-departed Jose Theodore.

This time, Neuvirth intends to give Varlamov a run for his money as the team's opening-night starter.

"We're pushing each other and that's a great thing," Neuvirth told NHL.com. "I want to be good and he wants to be good, so we're pushing each other. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup and be the best team in the NHL. Semyon wants to be better than me and I want to be better than him and that will lead to a pretty good competition."

Off the ice, they're good friends. On it, they play a similar butterfly style -- the one difference being Varlamov tends to be a little more flashy, while Neuvirth appears much more conventional.

"We've been waiting for this opportunity with them because we're high on both of them. We thought they should have both gone in the first round and felt fortunate that we got both of them. They've both had a couple years of pro experience and our strategy in signing Jose (Theodore) a couple of years ago was to sort of build that bridge to this point."
-- George McPhee

"I think we have a great relationship, he's a great guy and a great goalie and has my respect," Neuvirth said. "We both want to play games, but only one can play, so it's up to coach. Me and him want to win games, but we're still playing as a team so you can't forget that. This is hockey, it's a team game."

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is confident in both goalies.

"They're both very good and I know the competition last year in training camp was good until Neuvi got hurt," Boudreau said. "I expect the same thing to happen this year. I think they both want to be the best and they'll both play like it. I know Semyon has that NHL experience, but Neuvi's won two Calder Cups and, with that, comes an awful lot of pressure. They're both the same age and they've played the same amount of games or close to it in their professional careers so I see it as a great competition."

Neuvirth was recalled by the Caps on Nov. 18 when Theodore was unavailable and made his first start two days later, stopping 19 shots in a 3-2 loss to Montreal. He was recalled again in December when Varlamov was injured and dropped a 6-3 decision to Toronto. But the Czech Republic native would win three straight starts and five of his next seven before being sent back to Hershey during the Olympic break.

He started 18 of 21 playoff games for Hershey last season and went 14-4 with a 2.07 GAA with a .920 save percentage en route to helping the team win its second straight Calder Cup. During his 2009 Calder run, Neuvirth finished 16-6 with a 1.92 GAA and .932 save percentage in 22 playoff contests.

"The Calder Cup wins gave me a lot of experience and I won both of them so I think I can take the next step," Neuvirth said. "I feel I'm ready for the NHL. It's a long season … I could start as the backup and finish as the starting goalie or I can start the season in goal and finish as a backup. You have 82 games to consider and then playoffs."

Varlamov opened some eyes during the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he replaced an ineffective Theodore to finish 7-6 with a 2.53 GAA and .918 save percentage in 13 playoff games. Varlamov was again given the nod during last season's playoffs, but the Capitals ran into a red-hot Montreal Canadiens team and would be eliminated in six games in the opening round.

"I'm trying to play butterfly style but it's all about confidence in this sport; that's a sort of a big thing for every goalie in the NHL," Neuvirth said. "You always want to stop that first shot and give yourself confidence. I can handle the pressure and I think I deserve a new chance this year."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale


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