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Caps turn to Neuvirth, Holtby with Vokoun out again

by Ben Raby
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Shortly after signing free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun last summer, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said he would have been comfortable moving forward with the goaltending tandem of Michal Neuvirth, 24, and Braden Holtby, 22.

Eight months later, and with four games left to play in the regular season, McPhee may not have a choice.

Vokoun pulled himself from a 3-2 shootout win Thursday night in Boston after aggravating a groin injury which had limited him to just three of Washington’s previous 17 games. Vokoun is officially listed as day-to-day by the team, but Neuvirth and Holtby are preparing to handle the load.

"It's unfortunate what happened the other night with [Vokoun]," Holtby said. "Especially with injuries, you always want to see your teammates back but that's hockey -- that's the way the game goes and now I just have to be ready for whatever."

Holtby has gone 2-1-1 since a March 18 call-up from Hershey of the American Hockey League, but was pulled from a 5-1 loss Tuesday night to the Buffalo Sabres after allowing three goals on 18 shots.

Neuvirth earned the win Thursday night in Boston, turning aside 19 of 21 shots in relief of Vokoun. He is likely to start again Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens.

"Obviously I feel bad for [Vokoun] but it is what it is," Neuvirth said. "But I proved last year that I can be the man and I'm excited. … Every game is a good experience for me. Even last year in the playoffs, that gave me a lot [of confidence] and I feel I grew up a little bit from last year and now I feel that I can do the job."

Neuvirth was the Capitals' undisputed No.1 goalie down the stretch last season, starting 13 of the team's final 14 games including playoffs.

Vokoun had been Washington's primary starter for much of the season, but given that he is working on a one-year contract, it is not out of the question to suggest that he has played his final game as a Capital.

"This is what everyone's goal is -- to be a big part of a team trying to win the Stanley Cup," Holtby said. "But there's also a human aspect to it and we want to make sure that in any way possible that [Vokoun] doesn't feel like he's let the team down by an injury. It's our job to pick up a teammate and carry ourselves into the playoffs."

While Vokoun's health remains a concern, injured Caps forward Nicklas Backstrom could return as early as Saturday against Montreal.

Backstrom has not played since Jan. 3 when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque, but the Caps No. 1 center was medically cleared this week to return to the lineup after passing a baseline neuropsychological test.

The 24-year-old Swede has missed 40 games, but he accompanied the team on their road trip to Boston and skated Friday for the 17th time in the last 18 days.

"There's no target date," Backstrom said. "It depends how I feel. Everything's possible. It's possible that I could [have played] last game, too. It depends how I feel [Saturday]. I felt good out there today, too, so we'll see."

Backstrom said earlier this week that his conditioning was not yet game-ready, but when asked on Friday about catching his wind and working his lungs, Backstrom said he hasn’t felt better. Physically it sounds as though he is ready to play. Preparing mentally may be the final hurdle.

"I think it's more about that you're worried about hitting the head again and maybe I'm out for longer than three months. That's the biggest problem I see. You just got to be mentally ready to face a hockey game."

Capitals coach Dale Hunter is not concerned about Backstrom suffering a similar injury.

"I think through his career here he’s been one of these players that has great vision on the ice," Hunter said. "I haven't seen through the years, some guys take big hits because of their vision -- they don't see the guys coming as much and identifying where everybody is on the ice.

"For him, he's got great vision through the years he hasn’t had big hits. He has his vision still, he has anticipation of the game and he understands the game so he’ll be fine that way."

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