Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America
NoVa Caps is currently examining the Capitals’ search for a starting goalie to replace longtime goalie, Olaf Kolzig in 2008 and how it led to the rise of current starter Braden Holtby. In Part 3 (see Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE), NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle looks at the progression starting from the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, through the summer of 2010.
The Setup Prior to 2009-10 Season
Veteran Jose Theodore entered the 2009-10 season in the second year of a two-year contract signed in the summer of 2008. Prospects Semyon Varlamov,who had seen time with the team the season before as a backup and starter in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Michal Neuvirth, who had led the Caps AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, to the Calder Cup Championship, entered 2009 Training Camp vying to be Theodore’s backup after the departure of Brent Johnson in free agency. In addition, Braden Holtby, the 93rd overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, entered his first professional season.
The plan was for Theodore to be the number one goalie for the Capitals and either Varlamov or Neuvirth as backup, with the possibility to ease them into the starting role. The “loser” of the backup battle would be the starting goalie in Hershey, with veteran minor league goalie Jason Bacashihua as the backup. Meanwhile, Holtby would start the season as the projected number one goalie for the Caps’ ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays.
Those plans, however, were forced to change, as Neuvirth was injured near the end of training camp, and as a result, Varlamov started the season in Washington. Neuvirth was sent down to Hershey but was unable to play until October 16. Because of this, Holtby started the season with Hershey; he started the first two games of the year for the Bears and gave up just one goal in his first game and recorded a shutout in his second game, which earned him additional playing time in Hershey before getting sent back down to the ECHL.
2009-10 Regular Season
Washington Capitals Summary
Both Theodore and Varlamov started for the Caps throughout October and early November. Theodore was forced to take a leave of absence in mid-November as a result of the death of his newborn son. Varlamov started most of the games while Theodore was on leave, while Neuvirth was recalled from Hershey to be his backup and made one start during that time frame, on November 20 against the Montreal Canadiens. Theodore returned to the team and Neuvirth was returned to Hershey in time for the Bears’ game on November 25, with Theodore returning to game action on November 30.
Both Varlamov and Theodore would start games in early December, and at one point, it appeared as though Varlamov would displace Theodore as the number one netminder. However, Varlamov was struck by the injury bug again; Neuvirth was subsequently recalled from Hershey in time for the game on December 12, a recall that turned out to be an extended stint with Washington. He was sent down to Hershey for a single game on January 31, but returned to the parent club afterwards. He remained in Washington until February 10. Neuvirth was one of the two goalies on the roster when the Caps set a team record of 14 consecutive wins, the other being Theodore. He was sent down soon after a start in a game on February 10 because Varlamov was finally healthy and the break for the 2010 Winter Olympics was set to take place shortly thereafter. He remained with Hershey for the remainder of the season and throughout the postseason.
Varlamov was sent down to Hershey for a rehabilitation start on December 30 and continued to be dogged by injuries afterwards. He started another rehabilitation game on February 7 before being recalled by the Caps in time to play in their last pre-Olympic break contest on February 11. He made one more rehabilitation start in Hershey on February 28 after the Olympic Break and then spent the remainder of the season with Washington.
For the 2009-10 season, Theodore played in 47 games (starting 43), posting a record of 43-30-7. His save percentage of .911 was an improvement over his percentage from the previous season; his goals-against average was 2.81. Varlamov played in 26 games (starting 23), posting a record of 15-4-6, with a save percentage of .909 and goals-against average of 2.55. Neuvirth played in 17 games with the Capitals, starting 16 and posting a record of 9-4-0, with a save percentage of .914 and goals-against average of 2.75. The plan for the postseason was to have both Theodore and Varlamov available for the playoffs, with Theodore as the number one goalie.
Between call-ups to Washington and his own injuries, Neuvirth played in only 22 games with the Hershey Bears, despite the fact he was expected to be the Bears’ starting goalie. He posted a 15-6-0-1 record for the Bears, had a save percentage of .919, and a goals-against average of 2.24. Bacashihua, the expected backup goalie, also played 22 for the Bears. He posted a record of 17-3-0-1, had a save percentage of .911, and a goals-against average of 2.48.
The goalie who played the most games for Hershey was Holtby, who had been expected to spend the season with the South Carolina Stingrays. He posted a 25-8-0-2 record with the Bears and a save percentage of .917, with a goals-against average of 2.32. Many times, he had played in back-to-back games and performed well in both, demonstrating great durability in addition to performing well.
The Bears that year went into the Calder Cup Playoffs as the top seed and hoped to defend their Calder Cup championship from the previous season.
Similarly to 2009, Jose Theodore started the first game of the Capitals’ first round series, this time against the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps dropped the first game 3-2 and Theodore started the next game. However, after giving up two goals to Montreal before eight minutes had elapsed in the first period, [Then-Head Coach Bruce] Boudreau replaced him with Varlamov. The Caps eventually came back to win that game 6-5 in overtime, but not before falling behind 4-1 near the end of the second period. Varlamov remained in goal for the remainder of the series, as the Caps won the next two games but lost the remaining three. While he did not have the greatest outing in Game 6, Boudreau stayed with him for Game 7, which was another loss. The Caps’ offense had abandoned them for the last three games as they were defeated by Montreal in what many consider to be one of the biggest upsets in the last decade.
In Hershey, the Bears had Holtby start the first game of Round 1 of the Calder Cup Playoffs, given that he had started the most games with the team and had performed well. Their Round 1 opponent was the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Hershey won Game 1 on April 14 by a 4-3 score in overtime, with Holtby making 21 saves on 24 shots. In Game 2 of that series, which took place on April 16, Neuvirth resumed his old position in Hershey’s net. This time, the Bears won 3-2. Neuvirth was also in net for Game 3 on April 17 and this time Hershey won 7-1. For Game 4 on April 18, Holtby manned the net for Hershey again and the Bears lost 4-1; this time Holtby made 24 saves on 28 opportunities for the Sound Tigers. Game 5 took place on April 21 and Neuvirth was back in net. This time, the Bears won 4-1, taking the series in five games, advancing to play the Albany River Rats.
The Bears swept their Round 2 series against Albany but the series was closer than the final score as three of the games went to overtime (Game 1, Game 3, and Game 5). Neuvirth started all the games in that series, except for Game 3 which Holtby started. Their first game started on April 24 while their last game took place on April 29. With the series sweep and the fact that it took six games to decide the series between the Manchester Monarchs and the Worchester Sharks, Round 3 of the playoffs did not begin until May 12. The Monarchs eliminated the Sharks on May 7 by winning a 2-1 game in overtime.
The Eastern Conference Finals between the Hershey Bears and the Manchester Monarchs on May 12. The Bears won the first two games at home but then lost Game 3 and 4 on the road in overtime, losing Game 3 by a score of 3-2 and Game 4 by a score of 1-0. They won Game 5 on the road in overtime by a score of 3-2. They returned to Giant Center for Game 5 on May 22 in Hershey and finished off the Monarchs by a 3-2 score, advancing to the 2010 Calder Cup Finals.
In similar fashion to the previous round, the Bears had to wait awhile to start their next series. The Western Conference Finals between the Texas Stars and the Hamilton Bulldogs did not finish until May 26 and took seven games to decide. In the end, Texas beat Hamilton 4-2 and advanced to the Calder Cup Finals to play the Bears.
The Calder Cup Finals started on June 3 at Giant Center. Perhaps the Bears were rusty, due to the long layoff, as they lost both Game 1 and Game 2 at home, by scores of 2-1 and 4-3, respectively. The outlook for the Bears to win this series and repeat as Calder Cup Champions did not look good as they would need to win on the road at least twice, as they had squandered their home ice advantage. Fortunately, the Bears went to Cedar Park Center and won Games 3, 4, and 5 and had the advantage when returning home for Game 6, which took place on June 14. The Bears won that game 4-0 and were able to repeat as Calder Cup Champions.
Neuvirth played in 18 games during the Calder Cup run of 2010. He had a save percentage of .920, and a goals-against average of 2.07. Holtby played in three games, had a .857 save percentage, and a goals-against average of 3.60.
As expected, the Capitals did not re-sign Theodore who eventually signed a contract with the Minnesota Wild prior to the start of the next season. The plan was now for Varlamov and Neuvirth to battle it out to become the starting goalie for the 2010-11 season and possibly beyond. Between performing reasonably well in his call-ups to Washington in 2009-10 and being the goaltender who led the Hershey Bears to two consecutive Calder Cups , Neuvirth was likely not to return to the minor leagues. They also now had one more solid prospect in Holtby, who had exceeded expectations by playing well in Hershey during a year during which he was expected to mainly play in the ECHL.
In the 2010 NHL Entry Draft that year, they drafted a goalie in the fourth-round with the 112th overall pick by the name of Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer, who was born and raised in Germany, had led his junior team, the Windsor Spitfires, to the Memorial Cup in May 2010.