Saturday, March 12, 2011, 12:52 p.m.
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By Mark ZuckermanStaff Writer
All season long, the Washington Capitals have been trying to figure out which of two young goaltenders deserves the starting nod come playoff time.
Perhaps the answer all along has been the 21-year-old who keeps bouncing back and forth between D.C. and Hershey.
Braden Holtby, the third-stringer pressed into service after both Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth suffered injuries, has suddenly emerged as the Capitals' top net-minder, the winner of three straight games at a critical time of the season.
Holtby shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday after Neuvirth took a slapshot to his head and had to depart after one period. Then he shut out the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night at Verizon Center. Then he stopped 40 of 41 shots fired at him by the Carolina Hurricanes Friday night in a 2-1 victory that extended the Caps' winning streak to seven.
It should come as no surprise, then, that coach Bruce Boudreau plans to start Holtby once again Sunday afternoon when the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks come to town for a nationally televised contest.
Really, what other choice does Boudreau have right now but to ride the hot hand of his young goalie?
"He's making it tough," Boudreau said following Friday's game. "Three really good goalies, and he obviously doesn't want to leave the net. He's obviously doing a good job."
In 11 NHL games so far this season, Holtby has allowed a scant 1.84 goals per game (best among any goalie in the league with at least as many appearances) while stopping 93.4 percent of shots fired his way (second only to Boston's Tim Thomas).
But are 11 games enough to convince the Capitals' decision-makers Holtby deserves the starting job through the final month of the regular season and into the playoffs?
For now, Holtby gets the nod over Neuvirth (who appears to healthy enough to return) and Varlamov (who has been out since February 20 with a knee injury).
"It's a chance for him," winger Mike Knuble said. "That's the way he looks at it. It's a chance. He gets a chance to play while the other two guys are down. As a young goalie, you've got to relish those moments. You want to take those opportunities when you can."
Holtby, something of a perfectionist, has found several areas of his game he believes needs improvement, especially his puck-handling.
But he appears to have a solid mental approach to his current situation, one that leaves him uncertain whether he'll be starting in an NHL game or sent back to Hershey just about every day he wakes up.
"I want to play every game like I'm getting sent down the next day and see where it leads me," he said.
In a perfect world, Boudreau would like one of his three goaltenders to step up and seize the job in the next few weeks. That way, the coach can enter the postseason confident he's got a lock-down No. 1 goalie in net.
But Boudreau has already established his willingness to make changes on the fly -- he famously benched veteran Jose Theodore one game into the 2009 playoffs in favor of then-rookie Varlamov -- and he knows he may have to employ a similar tactic this season if none of his three goalies can stay both healthy and productive.
"Eventually they seem to always get hurt when we try to establish a regular starter," Boudreau said. "We just do what we have to do to survive, and then the goalie that comes in usually plays very well, until he gets hurt. Hopefully, Holtby can last and we'll keep going with him until he starts to fade."
By the way, you can watch the Caps-Blackhawks game streaming live via NHL on NBC, by clicking here.
Contact Mark Zuckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.