Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Playoff Goalie Manifesto

Caps fans certainly have plenty to talk about these days....injuries, peaking at the right time, potential playoff pairings. And of course goaltending. Lots about goaltending. Neuvirth or Varlamov (or Holtby). Opinions have been voiced. Lines have been drawn.

And since this was supposed to be a blog about goalies, let's talk about goalies. Let's talk about Caps goalies, but not just Caps goalies. Really, let's talk about goalies and the coaches who love to play games with their heads. Because coaches like to talk about how goalies are weird, and about how they don't understand goalies, and how they just want nothing more than to not have to think about their goalies.

But coaches are usually full of crap about goalies. They love tinkering with goalies. They micromanage, they overthink. They're convinced that they know just what strings to pull, and then they just pull and pull until the whole thing unravels. And then they wonder why a big ball of thread can't win 16 games. So,'s my advice:

1) Pick One Starting Goaltender
You're the coach....act like it. Don't half-heartedly endorse your game 1 starter. Don't say one guy has looked particularly good lately and, um, he's earned it, so, you know, he's our guy...I guess. Don't have one foot in and one foot out, or worry about affecting the psyche of your (possibly) sensitive, tempermental back-up. Step up, make a decision, and own it. You've had 6 months and 82 games to figure out who you trust, and more importantly, who your team trusts. You want to be a head coach? Well these are the choices you have to make, and have to live with.

2) In the playoffs, wins and losses are the only stats that matter.
It doesn't matter how well a goalie plays, it only matter if he wins. If he plays well and loses four out of seven, it wasn't his fault....and you're all still golfing. If he struggles one night but still gets the win, you get to come back to work for one more day. Obviously you want your goalie to play well every night. But in the playoffs you really want your team to play well, to play confidently, to get on a roll. If you have a winning formula, run with it. No one cares how you win playoff games, only how many you win.

3) Barring injury, you are only allowed to change your starter once. Once.
Remember this: the whole point of changing your starter in the playoffs is that it gives your team an excuse for games they've already lost. It's not actually about goaltending, it's about giving your team amnesia, or some sort of get-out-of-adverse-momentum free card. Under no circumstances is this to become a rotation by whimsy, or gut feel, or coin flip. Give your 'tender and your team a fighting chance. The minute you start to flip-flop back and forth, it stops being about a fresh start and starts being about your lousy goaltending. And no one wins in the playoffs with lousy goaltending.

4) Only make that switch during round one, and only when down 0-2, 0-3, or 1-3.
Switching goalies is the act of a desperate man, and everyone knows it, no matter how many "we don't really care who's back there" quotes the players give. If you do it too soon, it just underscores the notion that you have no faith in your team. You can argue that it's more dangerous to wait too long before making a switch, but 2008 and 2009 show that doing it too soon doesn't work.

5) If you make a mid-game switch, be prepared for controversy.
Nip it in the bud quickly....either your started is still your starter, or this was about more than just one game and you're making a change. Don't equivocate in the post-game interview, or wait to see who looks better at the off-day practice. No head games.'re the coach. Act like it.

So there it is....just my two cents. Gun to my head, BB goes with Neuvirth. Which is fine... i think you can make a number of different arguments for each of the three goalies. I think all three are talented, capable, and each has matured in measurable ways this year. But the yo-yo act has to stop. The problem with coaches who love to tinker, is they don't know when to leave well enough alone. So here's hoping the Coach has grown up a little bit this year, too.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If It Can Be Broke Then It Can Be Fixed

Aaaaaaaaaaaand we're back.

Fantastic win for the Caps on New Years Day... great team effort, excellent goaltending. Great to see Varlamov put a little streak together here... Three straight wins, three goals against, timely saves, nary a soft goal to be seen, and he's the NHL Player of the Week. That'll do. Furthermore, he and Neuvirth have finally, for the time being anyway, found a way to both be healthy and play well at the same time. Eventually, one of them needs to take the job from the other, because goaltending platoons do not win Stanley Cups. But that can wait till March. For now, having two healthy and focused guys is a luxury. In the meantime, though, I want to get big picture about the Boudreau-led traptastic evolution of the Caps we've heard so much about during the eight game skid and on 24/7. Yes, on the surface it makes sense. Yes, of course you have to play sound defensive hockey to win the Stanley Cup.

But no, defense alone does not win championships. So I'm just going to say it: I think changing to a more defensive-oriented system is a bad idea. *

Well, that's not the whole story. It's not a bad idea, per se, but I think it shines a spotlight on the wrong things. Because the more I watch this team, and the more I look back on the playoffs in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the more I think the offense was and is the real problem. Specifically, I think the current offense is one-dimensional and streaky, and has proven to be as much in the playoffs these past two seasons.

"But everyone knows that defense wins championships," you say. a point. Like it or not, you need to score, too. The average playoff rank (based on GAA out of the 16 playoff teams) of the ten teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the lockout is 3.10. The average rank of those ten teams on offense, based on goals for? Also 3.10. So you have to have both your offense and defense clicking to get it done. The Caps haven't done enough on either side, finishing sixth in playoff goals per game in both '09 and '10, and seventh and eighth, respectively, in playoff GAA.

"Something has to give though...10-11 in 21 playoff games isn't getting it done." Fine. But before we rush to judgment, let's break down the Caps' 21 playoff games over the last two seasons a little further. When Washington gave up two or fewer goals, their record was 5-4. When they give up 3+, they were 5-7. Makes sense...fewer goals against equals more wins, although not drastically more. Now how about when they score 3+... they're 9-3. When they score 2 or fewer, they're an eye-catching 1-8. 1-8! Furthermore, the average playoff game over the last two seasons has had roughly 5.73 total goals, which means more often than not, you need to score three goals to win. Which we now know, because the Caps are 1-8 when they're scoring fewer than three goals per game.

"Well, but they need to be able to hold a lead when they get it," you say. I agree, but that hasn't been their problem. They're 4-1 over their last three playoff series when leading after two, and they're 8-2 over that stretch when they have the lead at any point in the third period. So holding leads isn't their problem. Getting leads is. In fact, the most surprising stat I came across was this: In those 21 playoff games, the Caps have only led 5 times going into the third. They've been tied seven times (and were 5-2 in those games), and trailed 9 times.

So what are the lessons here for a winning playoff formula? Score some goals, and get the lead. Improve the power play, which looks run-of-the-mill this year, especially given the talent of the first unit, and was unfathomably bad in that series against Montreal last year (going an anemic, pathetic, unforgivable 1-33). Anyone who saw games 5,6, and 7 last spring knows they need to find ways to score gritty, ugly, hard-working goals. Does instilling a more defensive philosophy indirectly instill a grittier offensive identity? Maybe. But now we're getting into the problem of square pegs and round holes... the first two lines are crafted to play a certain way, with a premium on speed and skill, and changing the philosophy does not change the roster. Furthermore, this is primarily a change to how the Caps play 5v5, when they've been very good 5v5 in the last two playoffs seasons. In fact, their 5v5 for/against ratio was 1.31 in 2010, 4th out of 16 (and better than both Philly and Chicago), and 1.17 in 2009, good for 3rd best in the playoffs. Do I think the Caps can run and gun their way to the Stanley Cup? No. But I think, if BB and company are going to instill a new attitude, they should start in the offensive zone, because that's where the real problems are.

*I'm sure I'm not the first person to offer this opinion. But I'm compelled to explain why, anyway.

Monday, November 22, 2010

But Only a Fool Would Complain?

So....I'm assuming the "Braden Holtby is ready for the NHL" crew is ready to take a deep breath?

And the "Let's trade Varly" bandwagon has plenty of good seats available right about now?

And we can temper the "Michal Neuvirth is definitely ready to handle the demands of a #1 starter" talk just a bit, at least for the time being?

Not to sound obvious, folks, but this is why teams who think they're contenders sometimes choose not to let go of proven depth in goal. This is why it wasn't foolish of people to suggest that goaltending might become an Achilles Heel for the Caps. This is why making any grand statements about how resolved your goaltending situation is after 20 games, or about what the crease situation will look like 60 games from now, is a fool's errand.

Washington is not playing well right now, and in truth it hasn't played very well over the last few weeks. Its fire-on-ice offense was masking some glaring inconsistency in its own zone and in goal. The coaching staff knew this and said as much last week, because they recognize that playing well and winning games can be two very different things in November. And that truth, which was increasingly apparent over the last eight contests, has now become impossibly obvious.

It's not time to panic....they're still tied for the top of the Eastern Conference, still leading their division, still one of the best teams in the NHL. But they've now given up 3+ goals in over half their games (13 times in 22 games, and 9 of the last 11). They're 15th in the NHL in team GAA and tied for 14th in team Save %. After a torrid start on the penalty kill, they're down to 10th overall and are the third-most shorthanded team in the league. If you're a Caps fan you should find this alarming, and this should point to the fact that the goaltending is something less than what it needs to be. Caps fans should be asking important questions: Can any of their young goalies hold up to the rigors of 55+ regular season games and be fresh/healthy come playoff time? Can the team expect consistent play in the crease night in and night out? Can three kids come together to embrace the physical and psychological pressures associated with playing on a genuine Stanley Cup contender? These are legitimate questions at this point in this season. Are they up to it?

Right now...I don't know.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Good News, Bad News...

Well now, that was some weekend of hockey, no? Seems like a good time for the first installment of "Good News, Bad News."

Good News: Michal Neuvirth won a game last night that he had no business winning.
Bad News: It was only because Chris Mason was absolutely awful.
Conclusion: Both guys were a mess. It was as though they met up before the game and agreed that neither would use opposable thumbs, and then Mason just said screw it and had the trainer put him in a straitjacket.

Good News: Neuvirth won his fifth straight last night, and is 7-1 in his last eight decisions. His 11 wins lead the NHL.
Bad News: 3.20 GAA, .895 Save% in those five wins, which doesn't even include the three goals on 14 shots in 49+ minutes against the Bruins back on November 5th because I'm too lazy to do the math. And he blew another 2+ goal lead last night.
Conclusion: He's not playing badly, I guess. But he's definitely not playing well either, and either the soft goals stop happening, or the wins do.

Good News: Braden Holtby played well Saturday in a 3-2 OT loss to Buffalo. He's shown great athleticism and quickness so far, which is excellent given how big he is and how well he fills the net.
Bad News: He and John Carlson combined to make Thomas Vanek look like Mario Lemeiux on the game-winner. The kids will play like kids sometimes...
Conclusion: Even if he doesn't get another start before Varlamov gets back, it's been a nice stint in the Show for Holtby. I think he's a ways from being an everyday NHL goaltender, but he shows that the Caps have really excellent young depth in goal. Speaking of Varly...

Good News!: Varlamov played his first game since October 21st, an 8-3 win over the Binghampton Senators. Stopped 21 or 24. I hear he looked ok. Understandably a bit rusty. Still, a positive development all things considered.
Bad News: “But I’m not ready 100 percent. I think I need to work more and more and more. I need to play more games. Yeah, I think my plan is to stay here. After the next week, we’ll see what’s going to happen.” [courtesy Tim Leone, The Patriot-News, via Japers]
Conclusion: He should take all the time he needs. Although if he were healthy, he'd have taken over last for Neuvirth last night after the 4th goal.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Net for Catching Days

"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time."
-Annie Dillard

Hats off again to Michal Neuvirth, who battled through a less than perfect performance last night to get a big win over a talented and dangerous Tampa Bay team. That's four straight starts giving up 3+ goals for Neuvirth, and he and the team have managed to win all four. And anytime you can win four (well, six really) in a row giving up over three goals a game, you have to be happy with a) how much offensive support you're getting, and b) that your goalie is finding ways to win even though he's not playing as well as he can.

Some disconcerting trends continued last night though...two bad rebounds wound up in the back of the net, and he (and the team) not only gave up the first goal of the game again, they blew another third period lead. That has to stop. I said this was going to be a detail blog, and it will continue to be, but all wins count the same and Neuvirth now has 10 of them, one more than anyone else in the league. Can't scoff at that.


I've mentioned here how I'm not in love with the way Bruce Boudreau manages his goalies, so I'll offer up my opinion about how the rest of the month should probably look. This assumes that Varlamov gets 1-2 good rehab starts in Hershey over the next 5 days:

Sat, Nov 13 @ Buffalo: Neuvirth
Sun, Nov 14 vs Atlanta: Holtby
Wed, Nov 17 vs Buffalo: Neuvirth
Fri, Nov 19 @ Atlanta: Neuvirth
Sat, Nov 20 vs Philly: Varlamov
Mon, Nov 22 @ New Jersey: Neuvirth
Wed, Nov 24 @ Carolina: Neuvirth
Fri, Nov 26 vs Tampa Bay: Varlamov
Sun, Nov 28 vs Carolina: Neuvirth

The last four are sort of a crap shoot, but I have to figure Neuvirth gets three out of four there, and this way he doesn't play three in a row for the rest of the month. I'll revisit this as we go, but that's how I'd want it to play out if i was BB.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Breakdowns Come, and Breakdowns Go

I had every intention of writing part two of the "Michal Neuvirth needs a day off" series, but since he just had one, we'll save parts two and three for another time. And even though I watched every minute of last night's exceptional performance by Braden Holtby, several talented people have already offered their take on his performance in appropriate detail, so no need to talk about that just yet. But I did notice a trend today that needs to be addressed. More than one excellent blog (not to mention a few message boards) mentioned that Washington would be fine with Neuvirth and Holtby, and without Varlamov. Some even mentioned it might be the right time to trade young Semyon. Me personally, I think the idea of keeping Holtby with the Caps and trading Varlamov (or even sending him to Hershey for anything longer than a conditioning stint) is ludicrous.

For starters, for all anyone knows, Varlamov is not just the best chance to win this year but the best NHL goalie in the long run. I mean, it's certainly possible that he'll be an injury-riddled question mark for his whole career, but he's an undeniable talent with a strong early track record, and it's incredibly premature to write him off. Secondly, keeping Holtby with the Caps is the wrong thing for his growth. He needs games. Like 50 or more of them. He needs to spend a full season being a starter as a pro. He needs to continue to develop outside the pressure of a NHL media market, and without the weight of a legit Stanley Cup contender on his shoulders when he gets to play every fifth game. Keeping a 21-year-old in his second pro season as an NHL back-up, especially when you already have a pair of (much more) proven young goalies ahead of him, is crazy. Next problem: if we assume that Neuvirth is the Caps' best goalie this year (and bear in mind we're still not even 1/4 of the way into the season), we also have to remember he's never played as many as 60 games in a season before. So the Caps desperately need a reliable back-up goalie to play 25+ games and get them 15+ wins. If it has to be Holtby because of injury, then so be it, even though in that case you can bet the Caps would try to trade for a cheap veteran back-up without giving up much in return. And Holtby works fine in the short term, and even gives Varlamov a chance to have a rehab start or two in Hershey. But why willingly choose Holtby when you've got a guy in Varlamov who's proven he's got NHL talent and proven he can win at this level, at least as well as Neuvirth has. Lastly, even if you disagree with the three reasons above, right now you can't get more than 50 cents on the dollar for Varlamov anyway. Given Varly's injury history, the closest comp from a trade perspective is probably Kari Lehtonen, who is vastly talented but hasn't been able to stay healthy. When he was traded last summer as a 25 year old with 200+ NHL starts and 90+ NHL wins, the Thrashers picked up a 4th round pick and a forward prospect with five NHL games on his resume. Not the sort of trade haul that helps the Caps in the here and now.

Listen, I really like what I've seen of Holtby so far. All 71 minutes of him. He seems to have the requisite poise, he moves well, and handles the puck exponentially better than either of his counterparts. And I know many Caps' fans are sick of the "glass groin" and ready to move on at the first thought of something more stable. But cooler heads need to prevail when it comes to how to handle this triumvirate. Caps fans should realize that the best possible outcome is for Neuvirth to stay hot, Varlamov to stay healthy, and Holtby to stay in Hershey.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Goalie Knows What a Goalie Shows...

First in a three-part series

"I told [goaltending coach Arturs Irbe] after the second period that Michal looks a little tired [Wednesday] and even though they only had one goal, I was a little worried about it."
-Bruce Boudreau, 11/03/2010

It makes sense that Michal Neuvirth would be feeling gassed given his yeoman's work thus far, but since he gets another start again tonight at home vs the Flyers [Ed. note: looks like it might be Holtby after all], we should wonder what exactly BB saw over the last two games (he mentioned fatigue again after Friday's circus act W over the Bruins). I'm guessing that people who pay particular attention to goaltending each have different ways to tell when a particular goalie is overworked. For me, I look for three signs: 1) going down too early (and staying down too long), 2) not working hard enough to see the puck through traffic, and 3) noticing when pucks seem to be finding their way through rather than around a goalie. And Neuvirth has been victimized by all three in the last two games. So let's take a look at problem #1, going down early and staying down too long.

It used to be, back before Francois Allaire and Patrick Roy combined to turn entire generations of goaltenders on to the butterfly, that the first hint of goalie fatigue was when they dropped to their knees (early and/or often) to make saves. I think the term most often associated with it was "flopping." It was a bad sign. Obviously that's not the case anymore...Neuvirth (and most goalies in the NHL circa 2010) goes down to his knees literally every time he faces a shot. Goalies spend more time on their knees than ever before, and in the last decade the idea of going down and staying down has evolved immensely, to the point where goalies now work hard on moving side to side after they've already dropped to the ice. And that's the evolution of goaltending in the last 30 years in a nutshell...from never going down, to rarely going down, to going down and getting right back up, and finally to going down and staying down. And that makes sense to a point. Let's say I go down to make the first save, and the rebound kicks a few feet to one side, into a dangerous'll be faster to stay down and slide than it will be to get up, push off, and go back down to stop the rebound. So is it even possible for a modern NHL goalie to go down too soon? Oh, yes...

Cases in point: the first two goals Neuvirth gave up Wednesday night. On the first, Nikolai Kulemin steals the puck at the top of the slot just to Nuevirth's right. He moves toward the net and pulls the puck to the backhand to avoid John Erskine, and immediately Nuevirth is down. All Kulemin did was move the puck to his backhand! Now there was traffic in front, and a potential shot from a backhand from that spot would be very tough to read. But now Neuvirth's gotta keep moving right to left to stay with the shooter, and in his panic to keep pace he eventually over commits to his left. Kulemin pulls the puck back to his forehand, and Neuvirth cant shift his weight around to recover in time. 1-0 Leafs.

One the second goal, John Mitchell comes down the right wing and makes a nice move to the middle to buy some time and space. And again, Neuvirth is immediately down (it's hard to see that in the clip, but it's fairly obvious in the last replay shown from behind the net). He pushes right, eventually gets back up and moves over to get in position for Kaberle's shot, but he's late getting set and can't do anything but accept the screen in front. In the end it's a tough save to make anyway, but Neuvirth didn't do himself any favors with how he played the situation.

So, he's down waaaaaay too early on both goals, and that's signal #1 that he's tired. And incidentally, both times he went down early it was, at least in part, because there were bodies in front of him. Which brings us to telltale tired sign #2: how he dealt with traffic in front of him. But since this is getting long, we'll tackle that issue another time.

Friday, November 5, 2010

They Don't Ask How, Just How Many...

- Congrats to Braden Holtby on his first NHL appearance and win tonight against Boston. Didn't have much to do, but that was a ridiculous position to be thrown into, and he responded well.

- Congrats also to Michal Neuvirth for being named the NHL's Rookie of the Month for October. Well deserved I say.

- I have huge reservations about the way Bruce Boudreau manages his goalies. I think it's a highly underrated skill in a coach, and BB has done a lousy job at it going back to last Spring, in my opinion.

- Having said that, he was dead-on when he said Neuvirth looked tired after Wednesday's shootout win over Toronto. I'll dive deeper into this over the weekend, but Neuvirth was going down too early and staying down when he shouldn't have, which are telltale signs of fatigue.

- Additionally, his play on the tying goal tonight was terrible. He played it essentially as a 2-on-0, and in the end basically just flopped and handed Shawn Thornton an empty net.

- I will say in his defense, however, that both Wednesday and tonight he had very little to do during the first two periods (16 shots vs the Leafs, nine tonight) and that makes it difficult to suddenly turn it on in the third when your team goes on cruise control. And he's not giving up howlers, he's just not finding a way to make a key save to preserve a lead.

- On that note, as "things" go, blowing three goal third period leads at home is at the very bottom of the list of "things" you want your team to have. As in: "Oh, letting three goal leads evaporate in 7 minutes at home? That's just what they do... it's there thing." Not good.

- Finally, if nothing else, these last two games have been extremely entertaining. My wife and I saw our first game at the Verizon Center tonight, and had a blast. Very good crowd tonight too.

Friday, October 29, 2010

...So Many Miles From Home

I want to expand a point I made in yesterday's post, and in the process touch on the Caps', um, uninspiring loss last night in Minnesota. I'll preface this by saying it's obviously an easier point to make in hindsight...

I made a short plea yesterday to give Braden Holtby his first career start last night rather than Michal Neuvirth, who was coming off a dazzling 3-0 shutout. Bruce Boudreau went with Neuvirth. Which I understand, because it's the safe decision. Neuvirth's off to a terrific start in spite of some uneven play in front of him, and his effort Wednesday in Raleigh certainly warranted rewarding him with another start. And I know Washington played its most complete game of the young season against the Hurricanes, and BB can make the case for wanting to 1) reward Wednesday's excellent effort, and 2) keep building chemistry and consistency on a team beset by injury and inconsistency thus far. And I get that Neuvirth was all-world on the second night of back-to-back starts in the AHL. That's all well and good. But that awful performance last night against the Wild is exactly what I thought Boudreau might get, and could have avoided by starting Holtby.

Fans understand the unwritten rule that more often than not, the back-up goalie gets a start when a team plays on consecutive nights. Usually (but not always), he gets the second game. And the assumption is that it's done because it's a good excuse to rest your starter. Which is true. But it's not the only reason why it's done. Remember that the whole team is tired on the second night, not just the starting goaltender. More often than not you get 20 guys who are lethargic and out of sync, especially with back-to-back road games.

So now comes the dirty little secret: teams play better in front of their backup goalie. They play smarter, more responsibly. Have a greater sense of urgency. Exactly the sorts of ingredients that often go missing on night two of a back-to-back. On top of that, it would have been Holtby's first career me crazy, but I think the guys in the locker room are less likely to phone it in when their goaltender is making his NHL debut. What's more, the worst thing that happens is you lose (which you did anyway), and now you've got a rested starting goalie for the big Saturday Night Special in Calgary, still with a chance to get four points from a tricky little three game road trip (which was really the most you could realistically hope for anyway).

Yes, there is a case to the contrary. But I believe BB missed an opportunity last night to squeeze a little something extra out of his team. Now we know he got another nice performance out of Neuvirth, but that wasn't enough to steal a point and the Wild didn't exactly melt the ice with the way they played. Maybe that little something extra would have been the difference.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Game 9: @ Carolina

Michal Neuvirth
29 shots/29 saves, 3-0 win (1st career shutout)

Now that was a solid performance from Michal Neuvirth. Everyone is talking about the ridiculous glove save on Eric Staal in the second period (and it's a save worth fawning over), but it was a complete performance from start to finish.

What I liked:

-It was a solid first period on the road (for both he and the team), with some timely early saves including a good two shot flurry from in close off a face-off to his right. Washington scored the first goal, Neuvirth kept the 'Canes off the board, and the Caps we're in control after 20.

-Speaking of control, his rebounds were excellent. Anything he coughed back into the slot (including the first save on the aforementioned first period face-off flurry) came on chances where the original shot was particularly dangerous and the first save was excellent.

-The save of the night. No, not the glove save, although as I said it was highlight reel stuff. But his best save of the night came a few minutes earlier, when he absolutely flew post to post to keep out a Jeff Skinner wraparound and somehow managed to withstand the ensuing jabs and whacks as well. The play was reviewed but I never saw an angle that showed the puck in the net, which is amazing. However, he was really just cleaning up his own mess, having gone down too early, which leads me to...

Things to work on:

-Neuvirth is a butterfly goalie. He goes down on everything. Which is fine. But on that Skinner play, he went down when Skinner took the pass at the face-off dot to his left, popped right back up, then went down again once Skinner was past the goal line (anticipating a pass out front) but before Skinner had committed to the wraparound. It was a chaotic, late-developing play and those are always tough to manage, but he made even more trouble for himself by going down early. It may sound like halfhearted criticism, but I've seen him do this on similar plays at least once in each of his last three starts. And sure it's a detail, but it's a detail business...

-Additionally, I still don't love the decision-making when he handles the puck. He mishandled a dump late in the first that got Hendricks drilled behind the net, and turned it over unnecessarily early in the second, forcing himself into a tough deflection save before he was pushed into the net (bright side: great rebound control on that save). It should get better with time though.

All things considered, it was a terrific performance.

One final thought: Play Holtby tonight. I know Neuvirth can handle it and he was all-world on the second of back-to-back nights in the AHL and all Holtby. It's a trap game...the night after a big division road game, two days before a big Saturday HNIC game against a hot Flames team in Calgary. If you start the rookie, it'll keep the team focused and (presumably) disciplined instead of letting them look past tonight and lean on Neuvirth.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Road Apples

My college coach used to say that every goalie who gets a road start has one job: do not give the game away in the first 10 minutes. Home teams come out fired up... they win races to loose pucks, they forecheck with abandon, they jump on anything remotely resembling a fat rebound. Just something to keep in mind when considering three things to watch as Michal Neuvirth gets his eighth start in the nine games and the Caps begin a three game road trip.

1) Watch out for the aforementioned slow start. In seven starts, Neuvirth has surrendered the game's first goal five times; he's given up eight first period goals and only has one scoreless first period on the season. It's hard to play from behind, and it's hard to win on the road; trying to do both is a bad idea.

2) See how well (or not well) Neuvirth is able to control the pace of play. Washington is banged up, especially along the blue line, and you can bet Hartford Carolina will try to wear them down tonight...the Whale Hurricanes have very good team speed, but don't be surprised if they dump and chase more than people expect as an excuse to get physical with the Caps' defensemen. Neuvirth needs to do a good job handling dump-ins and keeping his D out of trouble when he can. Furthermore, while Washington's centers haven't been gangbusters winning face-offs, Carolina has been historically bad thus far. Neuvirth should freeze the puck every chance he gets to slow down the game and keep his players fresh.

3) Despite his great start to the season, Neuvirth could use a solid showing tonight. His last two starts have been decidedly average, with rebound control, over-commitment, and untimely goals all being somewhat troubling. I certainly don't mean to take anything away from his performance to date, and i think the Caps (and their fans) should be very pleased with his overall play so far. But with Varlamov still injured, the team having to play the second of back-to-back road games tomorrow in Minnesota (plus a third tough road game Saturday in Calgary), and a back-up who's never played a minute of regular season hockey at this level, don't be surprised if a soft game tonight raises questions about Washington's goaltending all over again.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Game 8: Home vs. Atlanta

Michal Neuvirth
32 Shots/29 Saves, 4-3 Win in OT

There was plenty to like about Michal Neuvirth's performance last night, beginning with finding a way for he and the team to grind out a gritty and much-needed win. In the second period, especially, he had a couple of very nice moments. His breakaway save on Jim Slater just after Mike Greene's goal had been waved off was especially huge...Neuvirth challenged well, stood his ground, and though Slater's shot wasn't especially well placed he still forced Nuevirth to make the play, and Neuvirth did. That's a massive save in the middle of a hockey game, down a goal, momentum hanging in the balance. He also had a nice sequence late in the second where he made two nice stops on Niclas Bergfors, the second a one-timer with a pass coming left to right...He got over in plenty of time, and held onto the rebound after Bergfors hit him in the chest.

I was also really impressed with his reaction on the tying goal. He had no chance to make that play, but he fought through traffic to see the initial shot, stayed right with the puck once it was deflected, and extended to his left to at least get the glove close after Evander Kane knocked the puck out of mid-air. Replays were inconclusive, but i think he may have even gotten the slightest piece of the puck. It would have been the save of the season thus far.

Now, there were some things not to like as well. Most obviously, Neuvirth had huge difficulty controlling his rebounds on several shots from the right halfboards (his left side). Each chance was a little different, but they all went stick side, six to 18 inches off the ice, and the rebounds all went right into the slot. He got away with it once in the first period, but not the second time, and then coughed up a third bad rebound late in the game that almost led to the tying goal. The placement of the shots in question is admittedly tough.... stick side, just above the pad is the toughest save a goalie has to make. But at the very least he needs to find a way to keep that initial rebound on the same side of the ice it came from. If he's squared up to the initial shot and can keep that puck in front of him, even if the rebound is a little chunky he's still in position for the next shot. Conversely, he made a great play shorthanded in the second when he made a blocker save from the same area of the ice and punched the rebound hard right back up the slot... the difference was that he knew all three Atlanta forwards were down near the goal line, and the slot was actually a better place for the rebound than the corner would have been. The puck went straight to a Caps forward who had time to corral and clear down the ice.

There's one more rebound trend worth watching from Neuvirth. He needs to do a better job holding onto shots that hit him in the chest. It's a tougher save to control than shots that hit him in the gut, but it's still manageable. I've noticed a couple of times that he drops is hands down a little bit on wider angle shots...that makes sense from those tough angles because Neuvirth goes down on every shot and from that angle he doesn't need to worry about extending his arms left or right to make a save; he's more concerned that nothing gets through his body. He's basically daring a shooter to blow one right over his shoulder from a bad angle, which could happen but won't often. But when he drops his hands down and the puck hits him right in the emblem on his chest, he can't get his hands up in time to swallow the rebound and it spills out into a dangerous area. Hasn't cost him yet, but it might down the road a few times.

One point on the Thrashers second goal...When an opponent has the puck behind his net and makes a pass out front, Neuvirth has to do one of two things with his stick: either he has to break up the pass, or protect the five hole. On Kane's first goal, he did neither. It was a good pass out from behind to net but it looked to me like Neuvirth could have gotten his stick on it. And while the defenseman certainly could have done a better job tying up in front, Kane didn't get much wood on that shot and Neuvirth didn't get his stick back in time. Not a bad goal, really, but it's a play he can do better on.

Two smaller critiques: It's never a good sign if a goalie ends up on his butt during the play. It's happened to Neuvirth a handful of times in his last two starts, and is something to keep an eye on early in games to get a feel for how under control he's going to be that night. If he keeps ending up on his butt, it's a good bet he's over-committing and getting caught out of position. Secondly (and this is a big pet peeve of mine), watch how many times goalies stop a dump-in behind the net, and throw it around the boards to a waiting opposition winger rather than leave it for a defenseman who's under some pressure but not really in a full-on race for the puck. Neuvirth did it once in the first period and got away with it. Mason did it in the second and Semin made him pay.

Last point....I hate it when goalies flop. I think it's embarrassing. Byfuglien definitely got a piece of Neuvirth, but Neuvirth went down like he'd been shot, and stayed down. Byfuglien deserved two, not five plus a game misconduct. By contrast, Ovechkin should not have been whistled for interference on Mason in the third...that was not a penalty. But my feeling is that when Nuevirth flails around and then stays down holding his head and then hops back up as soon as he gets the call, it makes the refs feel duped and makes both the make-up trip on Laich and the interference call on Ovechkin that much easier to make.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Men They Couldn't Hang

For hockey fans, the easiest way to evaluate goaltending is to treat it as a series of binary events. Either the puck goes in the net, or it doesn't. And there's something to be said for that school of thought in a results-oriented environment like the NHL. They are always stats like GAA and Save Percentage that are easy enough to compare and contrast, but as Mark Twain (and/or Benjamin Disreali) once wrote, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." And any goalie will tell you that wins and losses are the only stats that really matter anyway. It's a basic concept, and it doesn't matter if you're watching your first hockey game or your 500th: the scoreboard isn't always fair, but it always tells the final truth.

And so it is that fans view goaltenders as ones and zeros. Goal, No Goal. Win, Loss. Comfort, Concern. Asset, Liability.

Except that goaltending is a detail business. And so this is a detail blog.


Last year the Washington Capitals finished the regular season with a record of 54 wins, 15 losses, and 13 overtime losses, good for 121 points and the Presidents Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team.Then they got bounced in the first round by Montreal.But if you’re reading this, you know that already.Furthermore, you know that the Caps brought back essentially the same roster from 2009-2010, which makes sense given the year they had as a team.

But the goaltending….ah, the goaltending.Last year Jose Theodore led the team with 30 wins, and finished the season on a 20-0-4 run.Then he lasted roughly a game and a half in the playoffs before Semyon Varlamov took over and played just well enough to lose the series in seven. And now Theodore is gone, Michal Neuvirth is up from the AHL, and the best team in hockey is at the mercy of a pair of 22-year-old kids with a combined 73 career NHL games heading into the 2010-11 season.

Which brings us to why we’re here. I'm not a Caps fan per se, although I think they're a talented team and should be fun to watch more nights than not. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen either goalie play. I am, however, a fan of goaltenders, having been one up through college, and I find the Caps goaltending situation too compelling not to follow closely. These guys don't need to be the best tandem in the NHL, but at some point one or both of them need to emerge as bona fide starters at this level. The point of this blog is to dive headlong into that evolution with the perspective of someone who knows the position but not the particular guys playing it, and maybe get a little nerdy about it. I'll watch as many games as I can with an eye not just on goals and saves, but also on decision-making, technique, patience, effort, consistency, and all the other details that matter at the NHL level.

Of course, not everyone considers goaltending a binary event, and this sort of study that may seem mundane at times, and even occasionally obvious. But with any luck, over the course of 82 games it might add extra insight into the season, the goaltenders, and the way people watch the position. Thanks for stopping by…