ARLINGTON, Va. – Now that the Washington Capitals have extended their season, they can only hope they don’t run out of goalies before they run out of games.
On the day after they qualified for the playoffs for the fifth straight season, the Capitals had to resort to using their director of media relations, Sergey Kocharov, to don the pads to give them the necessary two goalies to hold a practice.
Tomas Vokoun is hurt. Michal Neuvirth is hurt. Braden Holtby, who has spent most of the season in the minors, is the last man standing. Maybe the Capitals should consider hiring a couple of bodyguards to walk everywhere with him, if only to keep him from stumbling on a sidewalk somewhere and getting hurt as well.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t come in threes,” said coach Dale Hunter, who then literally knocked on wood—the wooden podium he uses when talking to reporters.
Making the playoffs is usually a cause for unfettered celebration, but the Capitals have taken an unexpectedly difficult road to get there. Instead of cruising into the playoffs, as has been the custom in recent years, Washington stumbled early and late—firing coach Bruce Boudreau along the way—and finally clinched a berth with Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
Now that they’re in, the Capitals can finish third, seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference, pending the results of Saturday night’s season-ending games. Washington will capture its fifth consecutive Southeast Division title—and move up to the No. 3 seed—if it wins on the road against the New York Rangers and if Florida loses in regulation at home to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Capitals can also catch the Ottawa Senators for seventh place if the results fall a certain way. Should Washington finish eighth, Saturday’s game against the top-seeded Rangers would be a first-round playoff preview.
“You always want to finish higher,” Hunter said. “No one says going into the season you want to finish eighth or third or seventh or whatever we finish. You always want to go in and be the best.”
But goalie questions have become annual rite of spring for the Capitals. Vokoun was supposed to solve that issue after the veteran was signed as a free agent last summer, but he’s been out indefinitely since aggravating a groin injury on March 29.
Neuvirth is a solid second option, but he couldn’t put any weight on his left skate after Panthers forward Marco Strum fell on Neuvirth’s leg in the second period Thursday night. Neuvirth was scheduled to see a doctor later Friday to determine the extent of his injury.
At the very least, Holtby will start Saturday against the Rangers, his 21st career NHL game. The 22-year-old goalie has looked good in his limited action, going 10-2-2 last season and 3-2-1 this season during various call-ups from the Hershey Bears of the AHL.
Holtby was certain that his latest stint with the Capitals would be brief, so certain that he left his car in the parking lot at the airport near Hershey when he flew out to join the big club. Some 11 days passed before he had time to retrieve it, incurring a hefty parking bill that has no doubt been worth it.
“He carried himself well, and he’s got that little strut to him a little bit,” Hunter said. “You need that as a goalie.”
Barring a positive report from Neuvirth’s doctor, the Capitals are expected to call up journeyman Dany Sabourin to back up Holtby in the regular season finale.
Then comes the playoffs. Given the season the Capitals have endured—and no matter who the goalie is—that’s a reason to take at least a moment to exhale.
“It’s obviously a sigh of relief,” defenceman John Carlson said. “Everyone in here is happy.”
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP