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Former teammates Varlamov, Neuvirth face off

by Adam Vingan /

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Like the nylon mesh enclosing the goals that they strive to protect, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov and Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth are intertwined.

Selected 11 picks apart by Washington in the 2006 NHL Draft, the two were heralded as the future of the Capitals' crease. They made their respective League debuts nearly two months apart during the 2008-09 season, both allowing one goal in victories. Varlamov wowed with acrobatic saves, explosiveness that Neuvirth balanced with a more conservative approach.

In the summer of 2011, following a season where Neuvirth earned 27 victories while Varlamov spent most of his time languishing on injured reserve, the Capitals traded Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round pick.

Varlamov and Neuvirth stood at opposite sides of the ice countless times during practice, but for the first time the two will do so in a meaningful game as they will start against one another when the Capitals host the Avalanche Saturday at Verizon Center.

"I have lots of memories with Washington," Varlamov recently told The Denver Post. "They gave me the chance to play in the NHL, you know? So this was a special team for me. Yeah, probably I will be a little bit nervous. But I'm so excited to be coming back and to play in the Verizon Center."

Two summers ago, Varlamov and Neuvirth's paths diverged not only geographically, but also professionally.

Varlamov has firmly implanted himself as Colorado's staring goaltender, having started 91 of the Avalanche's 134 regular-season games dating back to 2011-12, entering Saturday's game. This season, Varlamov has been nothing short of impressive, posting a 3-0-0 record, 1.00 goals-against average and .967 save percentage.

Meanwhile, Neuvirth has become a victim of circumstance. His anointment as starter lasted all of 24 hours when the Capitals signed Tomas Vokoun, who appeared in 48 games during the 2011-12 season.

A late-season injury to Vokoun seemingly opened the door for Neuvirth to reclaim his spot ahead of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But an untimely injury of his own allowed Braden Holtby to usurp him as starter, a position that Holtby has held onto ever since. Neuvirth will be making his first start of the season Saturday.

"I feel pretty good," said Neuvirth, whose only appearance this season was in relief of Holtby against the Calgary Flames on Oct. 3. "I've had a couple of good practices and I'll be ready."

Neuvirth told that he has not spoken to Varlamov since he was traded, but he watches him play when he can, calling him an "awesome guy and a great goaltender."

Reserved in nature, Neuvirth has downplayed Saturday's game as just another start. But coach Adam Oates is well aware of the history between Neuvirth and Varlamov that predates his tenure and is hoping it could serve as motivation for Neuvirth and his teammates, who are seeking their second win of the season.

"You're looking for anything all the time," Oates said. "As soon as I saw [Jean-Sebastien] Giguere played [in Boston], I would imagine it's so Varly could play here. It's all cat-and-mouse stuff all the time. If you're looking for a spark — maybe it sparks us – great."

Not one to shy away from the "cat-and-mouse stuff," Oates made sure Neuvirth got his chance to shine against his former teammate.

"I said he was going to get a turn, it's his turn," Oates said. "Go get ‘em, Neuvy."

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