Sunday, April 10, 2011

Two Goalies...One Net

The problem with starting a season with two young, promising goaltenders is that both will fail to measure up to their respective potential. A team can address that situation by finding a solution in the trade market in February.

Well, that’s one problem with having two promising goalies. The other is that both play up to their potential when they are in the lineup. You don’t take the safe out of finding a solution at the deadline, because you don’t need one. But what you are left with is that when the time comes to make a decision between two young, promising goaltenders who have played well, there isn’t much separation between them to give you a clear-cut basis to make a decision.

And so we have Exhibits A and B as an illustration of the second problem – Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Caps fans have their favorites, be he “Neuvy” or “Varly,” but the time for a decision on who to turn to in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals has come, and sentiment isn’t an option in making that choice. So, who is it?

The 100,000-foot numbers

Neuvirth has more wins (27) and more standings points per appearance (1.23) than does Varlamov (11 and 1.00). Varlamov has a better GAA (2.23) and save percentage (.924) than does Neuvirth (2.49 and .913). You could argue that it is winning that matters, and that Neuvirth has done that more often per appearance than Varlamov. However, you might say that Neuvirth has been the beneficiary of better luck from other factors (goal support, quality of opponent faced) than Varlamov. The usual numbers are debating points in a bar argument, not a means to decide.


Neuvirth has not lost more than two games in regulation consecutively this season, and that happened twice (December 11th and 18 against Colorado and Boston, the other being February 8th and 14th against San Jose and Phoenix). On the other hand, he has four streaks of at least four wins in a row this season, the latest broken last night in a game with little meaning in the larger picture for the Caps.

On the other hand, Varlamov has only two streaks of consecutive wins this season – a four-game streak in late November/early December and a three game streak that ended with the Winter Classic win over Pittsburgh. Those two streaks account for seven of Varlamov’s 11 wins this season.

Breakdown by Period

There is a train of thought that suggests that Michal Neuvirth closes out games effectively. His numbers to not hold up to scrutiny on that score. If you look at his goals against average and save percentage by period, it breaks down as follows:

1st period: 2.73/.906
2nd period: 2.25/.925
3rd period: 2.44/.908
Overtime: 1.22/.960

While Neuvirth has not had the kind of third period folks might have assumed he had, he was lights out in overtime. That overtime record is rather remarkable. He lost only one game in overtime this season (that against Florida, a 4-3 loss on January 11th). In the other 11 overtime games in which he played, he either won in overtime or got the Caps to the Gimmick phase. One goal on 25 shots in overtime is rather impressive.

The flip side is that Neuvirth has been a comparatively slow starter in games. His worst GAA comes in the first period (2.73) as well as his worst save percentage (.906). The Caps have the league’s best record when trailing first. In some respects, it is a good thing they do, because they have been getting some less than top-notch goaltending early in games from Neuvirth.

Varlamov has had a different sort of performance by period:

1st period: 1.18/.958
2nd period: 3.00/.911
3rd period: 2.23/.911
Overtime: 7.81/.800

You could almost think of it as a mirror image of Neuvirth’s. Varlamov has been very efficient to open games, allowing only ten first period goals all season and shutting teams out in the first frame 19 times in 26 tries. One of the curiosities in his record, though, is in facing so few shots in the third period. On a per-60 minute basis, what he faced in the third period this season works out to a less-than-25 shots per 60 minutes rate. And his third period performance has not been comforting lately. Seven goals allowed on the last 38 shots faced in the third period (.816 save percentage) over five appearances.

That overtime mark stands out somewhat, as well, given the nature of the season on which the Caps are about to embark. Five times Varlamov has gone to an overtime session this season, he has allowed the winning goal in three of them. It is a small group of games to select from, but it is what we have this season. It is not necessarily confidence-inspiring.

Wake-Up Call

Both Neuvirth and Varlamov have had grisly games against the Rangers this season. Neuvirth allowed six goals on 28 shots in a 6-0 loss to New York on February 25th. Since then, however, Neuvirth is 9-2-0 in 12 appearances with a 2.16 GAA and .925 save percentage with a shutout.

Varlamov allowed seven goals on 20 shots in a 7-0 loss to the Rangers on December 12th. Since then he is 7-5-5 in 18 appearances with a 2.03 GAA and .932 save percentage with one shutout. Sometimes, a talented youngster needs a kick in the backside sort of reality check, and those two games against the Rangers might have served that purpose for each of them.

Post Season Competition

Although Neuvirth has appeared in many more games this season than has Varlamov (48 to 27), they have similar numbers of decisions against playoff teams in the Eastern Conference – Neuvirth has 12 decisions against such teams, and Varlamov has 11 decisions. And here, there is separation between the two:

Neuvirth: 7-3-2, 2.93, .900, 2 SO
Varlamov: 5-3-3, 2.09, .929, 2 SO

Varlamov has come up bigger against the tougher competition, although he does not have as much to show for it in terms of wins and losses. And, he has played better against a wider range of potential playoff opponents, having a season save percentage of at least .949 against four of the seven other Eastern playoff teams. On the other hand, Neuvirth has shined against Pittsburgh (2-0-1 with a .977 save percentage) but struggled against Boston (.810), the Rangers (.839), and Philadelphia (.882). Again, we are talking about small numbers of events here, perhaps one or two games against any single opponent, but overall Varlamov has done a better job against the class of playoff eligibles than has Neuvirth. Of course, each had their own disastrous game against the Caps’ first round opponent, Varlamov allowing seven to the Rangers in a single game and Neuvirth allowing six in a single game.

So, who is it going to be? Michal Neuvirth might be the Capitals’ most valuable player for the way he stepped in and stepped up to start the season and get the Caps off on the right foot after their disappointing early exit last spring. Semyon Varlamov struggled with health issues that limited him to 27 appearances, but in those 27 appearances he allowed more than two goals only eight times, only four times in 18 appearances since he was lit up for those seven goals against the Rangers in December.

Among the concerns are Neuvirth’s starts in games (that .906 save percentage and goals allowed 29 times in 47 first periods played this season) and Varlamov’s finishes (.911 save percentage in the third period and .800 in overtime).

Let us be clear here. There is no “bad” choice to be made. The Caps do not have, as one wag put it, “legitimately below-average goaltending.” Spin or massage the numbers all you want, the object of the exercise is to keep pucks out of the net, and both Neuvirth and Varlamov have done just that, so far. But the object of the exercise now is to win one game four times and repeat that four times over the next two months. Which goalie gives the Caps a better chance to win one game, given the opponent and the circumstances?

All things equal – and that really comes down to health (Varlamov’s in particular) – Varlamov brings just a little more to the table than does Neuvirth. He has a better save percentage at both even strength (.930 to .922) and defending the power play (.892 to .885), and he has had somewhat better numbers against stiffer competition. He has been just a little better down the stretch leading up to the playoffs. The luxury the Caps have that other teams (particularly the Rangers, who started Henrik Lundqvist 26 straight times to close the season) do not is that they have a credible number two guy who can perform at a playoff level. Both have performed at that level down the stretch. And that is why there really is no “bad” choice to be made here. But that choice, by a slim margin, should be Semyon Varlamov.

Ask Not For Whom The Puck Tolls

In eleven seasons since the NHL went to a six-division format, at least one lower seed has defeated a higher seed in the first round of the Eastern Conference side of the Stanley Cup tournament:

2010: MTL over WAS; BOS over BUF; PHI over NJD
2009: CAR over NJD
2008: NJD over NYR; PHI over WAS
2007: NYR over ATL
2006: none
2004: MTL over BOS
2003: none
2002: OTT over PHI; MTL over BOS
2001: BUF over PHI; PIT over WAS; TOR over OTT
2000: PIT over WAS
1999: BOS over CAR; BUF over OTT; PIT over NJD

Chances are, one of Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, or Pittsburgh is going to fall in Round 1.  So...who will it be?