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Netminders instrumental for a good playoff run

by | CBSSports.com
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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Michal Neuvirth needs only to look to his left, beyond the main entrance to the Washington Capitals' training facility dressing room to see the goalie who could be one bad rebound away from taking his job.

It's not like Caps coach Bruce Boudreau hasn't done it before.

"I just focus on the game," said Neuvirth, a rookie who will get his first playoff start as the Caps open against the New York Rangers at the Verizon Center on Wednesday. "What's going to happen, I don't really care. I'm going to go minute by minute. It's a big challenge and I think I can handle it."

Even though he struggled in the last few games, Sergei Bobrovsky gets the call for the Flyers. (Getty Images)  
Even though he struggled in the last few games, Sergei Bobrovsky gets the call for the Flyers. (Getty Images)  
The Capitals aren't the only team with multiple choices. The Anaheim Ducks appeared to have their own three-headed battle for the blue paint before injuries led Dan Ellis to become the default starter for their opening-round series against the Nashville Predators, which begins tonight. The Philadelphia Flyers will start their own rookie goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, in net when their series against the Buffalo Sabres commences on Thursday, although the more experienced options of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton lie in wait.

"When you have questions about a position, there's a potential for [a short leash]," Darren Eliot, a former NHL goalie and analyst with Versus, said. "When a few goals are scored and the coach isn't set on one goalie, it'll happen. I wouldn't think functioning in that kind of environment would be very comfortable."

The Caps' only veteran option, Jose Theodore, was not re-signed last offseason. That left Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby -- all goalies 23 years of age or younger -- in net this season. Each put on stellar runs when given the opportunity, although Holtby is back with the team's AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa. Neuvirth led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship the last two postseasons.

"He hasn't been through this," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said as he looked around at the swarm of reporters. "But he's been through championship series and everything else. He's ready. I don't have to say anything. I have tried not to say anything to him for fear it would get him wound up or nervous."

Boudreau benched Theodore as the starter after middling Game 1 performances the past two seasons, replacing him with Varlamov each time. He's going to stick with Neuvirth, at least for now.

"I hope I learn every day," Boudreau said when asked about his goalie choices the last two playoff runs. "It's a different approach. You work on what they've done and their personalities. I treat them like I treat everybody and that's pretty good."

The Anaheim Ducks didn't start the season with questions in net. Jonas Hiller has been the starter in Anaheim for the better part of three seasons and there was arguably no better goalie in the league through the All-Star break. Then Hiller began to experience dizziness linked to vertigo, which caused him to miss all but one of the team's final 24 games. That game he did get into -- against Nashville, coincidently, on March 24 -- he allowed three goals on nine shots and was chased from the game.

Michal Neuvirth led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship the last two years. (Getty Images)  
Michal Neuvirth led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship the last two years. (Getty Images)  
Unlike the Caps, the Ducks do have some veteran options. Ducks GM Bob Murray made waves in February by signing Ray Emery, a goalie that led the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 but had been out of the NHL for a year after hip surgery. Ellis was then acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning before the trade deadline.

"I wasn't expecting to be traded," Ellis told CBSSports.com. "When I got here, they let me know that they had a need right away and started to play in some games. I went from basically sitting in Tampa to playing eight or nine games in a row.

Emery and Ellis split time down the stretch, giving the Ducks a couple options as they waited for Hiller to recover. Then Emery went down with a lower body injury midway through a game against the Sharks on April 6. Ellis came into the game in relief and finished out the season, winning Anaheim's final two games as he stopped 66 of 68 shots.

With neither Hiller nor Emery 100 percent, tonight's Game 1 start will likely go to Ellis. Maybe it has to do with how injuries -- rather than purely Ducks coach Randy Carlyle -- have dictated who plays, but Ellis said the trio gets along just fine.

"Hiller and Emery are incredible teammates and good guys to talk with," Ellis said. "We sit three in a row in the dressing room every day. We encourage each other and pass along information we might have on an opponent. Sure, we're competing for the same spot, but as a team we have one goal."

The Flyers could have tipped their hand about how they feel about their goalie situation when they sent Michael Leighton through waivers last week. Leighton, who assumed the starting job in the playoffs when Brian Boucher went down with an injury and carried the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final a season ago, has played in only one Flyers game this season. But the 22-year-old Bobrovsky has struggled down the stretch, losing his final four decisions -- and that's not counting the three goals on 10 shots he gave up in the regular-season finale. Boucher came into the game in relief and the Flyers pulled out the victory over the New York Islanders.

"Bob has the skill, he has the mental makeup that it is possible," Jeff Reese, the Flyers goaltending coach, told CSN Philadelphia. "He just needs to get off to a good start and get his confidence and go from there."

Pete Peeters, a former NHL goalie who serves as the Ducks goalie consultant, recalls a similar situation in Philly when he was at the end of his career. Ken Wregge, Ron Hextall and Peeters all split time in 1989-90 and 1990-91 in Philly.

"You're friendly and you're competitive, but it's not always a really good situation for goalies to be in," he said.

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