The conventional wisdom says Braden Holtby will enter the 2013-14 season as the Capitals’ starter.
There’s good reason for that. Holtby has been the Stanley Cup playoff starter for the last two springs, seeing every minute of all 21 games. He also took control of the net after a slow start in 2013, starting 11 games in a row between Feb. 9 and March 7.
But should we count out Michal Neuvirth? He, too, has started in the playoffs as Washington’s primary goalie in 2011. He is still just 25. And last year wasn’t necessarily a fair fight with an illness knocking Neuvirth from the lineup for over a month in February and early March.
But whatever the reason, there can’t be any missed opportunities this time around. Holtby is likely to get first crack. If he falters then Neuvirth must be ready. He appeared in five consecutive games in January after Holtby struggled the first week of the season. He then played two more the following week. But after getting pulled from a Feb. 7 loss at Pittsburgh, we didn’t see Neuvirth again until March 10.
It was a second straight year with declining numbers for Neuvirth, whose save percentage in 2010-11 was .914 with a 2.45 goals-against average. That dropped to .903 in 2011-12 – the year Semyon Varlamov was traded, veteran Tomas Vokoun was brought in and Holtby established himself. Neuvirth rebounded to .910 last year with a 2.74 GAA. Overall, though, that wasn’t good enough.
There is reason for hope, however. The organization clearly still thinks it has a positive asset here. Neuvirth was signed to a two-year, $5 million contract extension earlier this year. You don’t do that if you aren’t comfortable having a guy start games for you. He and Holtby will both be on the roster the next two seasons barring a trade.
“It doesn’t matter what team you’re on – there’s going to be competition in the NHL,” Holtby said earlier this month. “I think we both understand that. You have to fight for your job and then fight to keep in.”
Looking for another positive sign? Neuvirth played very well in five of his last six starts of the season. Opponents managed more than two goals against him just once (Boston, March 16). Unfortunately, it was too late. Holtby was playing even better and had earned the No. 1 job. He has the early advantage when training camp begins next month.