Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Bruins, October 21st

It is coming later than we might have planned, but we’re pushing on with ten games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season. Some are wins, some are losses, but all of them had a take away going forward in the season. They are in chronological order, not order of importance, so let’s get started with one from early on…

October 21, 2010: Washington (4-2-0) at Boston (3-1-0)

Result: Bruins 4 – Capitals 1

The Background: It was Boston’s home opener of the 2010-2011, the B’s going into the game as winners of their previous three games, including a 3-1 win in Washington in their most recent game. Washington was entering the contest with a 4-2-0 record, just having a four game winning streak stopped by Boston in the 3-1 decision at Verizon Center.

The feature in this second game of a home-and-home set would be its matchup of goaltenders. After sitting out the season opener for Boston, Tim Thomas roared to life, starting and winning the next three games, stopping 95 of 97 shots in the process (.979 save percentage). Not bad for a guy coming off off-season hip surgery.

On the other side, Semyon Varlamov was going to get his first start of the season for the Caps. Varlamov played 45 minutes in relief of Michal Neuvrith in the Caps’ previous game, stopping 13 of 14 shots in a 3-1 Boston win. Varlamov was coming off an injury of his own that put him on the injured reserve list to start the season.

Why It Mattered: Contrary to what many in the hockey world thought best for the Caps – that being to sign a veteran goaltender – the Caps were embarking on what would be a season-long audition to find out which of their young goaltenders would emerge as the number one goalie and the go-to netminder for the post-season. With Varlamov on the shelf to start the season, Michal Neuvirth took advantage, starting in the Caps’ first six games (not finishing game six because of flu symptoms), going 4-2-0, 2.46, .921.

Varlamov was a bit behind the eight ball at this point, having missed the Caps first five games while Neuvirth was posting, if not elite, at least solid numbers to get the Caps off to a good start. And, he was playing in his second straight game after coming off injured reserve. He posted good numbers in relief in the first appearance – 13 saves on 14 shots faced – but it was not a heavy workload for 45 minutes of work, and he would catch the Bruins in a motivated mood in their home opener. So the question was, could Varlamov establish some momentum from his previous appearance to stake his claim in the early going of this two-horse race?

As it turned out, this was an odd game. Varlamov faced only eight shots in the first period, surrendering a goal on the last one, a power play tally by Michael Ryder in the last minute of the period. It seemed to spark the Bruins, who came out firing in the second. Boston recorded nine shot attempts in the first 2:22 of the second period, getting six of them on goal, and scoring on the last one, that by Jordan Caron. Except for that flurry straddling the first and second periods, it was a relatively tame offensive output for Boston – two goals (both on the power play) on 27 shots. The Bruins would score three power play goals in the game on four man advantage opportunities, but Varlamov would stop 25 of 26 even strength shots on goal. It was not a bad performance on his part and much as an unfortunate one.

As an aside, the three power play goals the Caps allowed in this game would be a feat not repeated until the Caps allowed three power play goals to (of all teams) Florida on January 11th. This game and the January 11th game would be the only instances in the 2010-2011 season in which the Caps would allow as many as three power play goals.

The Takeaway… It was unfortunate in more than the score at the end of the game. Varlamov would not appear in another game for more than a month following this one. And even after his return he would be streaky for the rest of the year, at least in terms of wins and losses: 4-0-0, 0-3-1, 3-0-0, 1-3-3, win, loss, win, loss, overtime loss, win. Between his intermittent absences due to injury (he missed 29 games as a result of four separate injury absences), and the streaky results, he spent the season always a step or two behind Neuvirth in the contest to be the Caps’ number one goaltender.

Varlamov’s up and down year in wins and losses started with a game in which he played rather well for long stretches, just not as good as his opposite number, Tim Thomas. So it would end up being for Varlamov in the 2010-2011 season in his contest with Michal Neuvirth. And that’s why this game mattered in 2010-2011.

(photo: AP/Mary Schwalm)