Capitals goalie coach Arturs Irbe can speak to Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby from experience. Nine years ago he teamed with Kevin Weekes in Carolina to lead the Hurricanes to their first Eastern Conference championship.
"Trust me, it wasn't the most fun and it actually takes tremendous, tremendous mental strength and obviously experience to handle it," Irbe told NHL.com. "To be honest, it's very hard to ask for that from inexperienced guys because they don't have much of a history behind them of doing it."
Why is this relevant?
It's possible the Capitals will use a combination of Neuvirth, Varlamov and possibly Holtby in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs. Neuvirth is 23, Varlamov is 22 and Holtby is 21. Only Varlamov has played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau most likely won't label anyone as the team's No. 1 goalie prior to the start of the playoffs, but instead is expected to name a Game 1 starter and give that player the opportunity to earn the right to start Game 2.
"We have three No. 1s," Boudreau said Monday.
Behind the trio is Irbe, who will give his opinion to Boudreau on who should start Game 1 and then offer his advice to the other two on how to handle the bad news. If Holtby doesn't get the nod the Capitals will send him back to Hershey so he can have a run in the American Hockey League playoffs, but Irbe might have to do some work with Neuvirth or Varlamov.
"I'm not the person who would be leaning or suggesting to use two goalies and use that to your advantage because history shows that there have been very few instances that a two-goalie rotation has taken a team very far," Irbe said. "At the same time, we know there is always somebody to fall back to.
"More or less, I would say we're comfortable with any of those guys. When you look at their stats, they have done well. The biggest question is not their ability to perform when they're in net, but their ability to keep it going for a lengthy period of time."
Neuvirth and Varlamov have had their issues with injuries and illnesses this season. Neuvirth has started at least seven games in a row only once, and in the seventh game he suffered an injury and had to come out. Varlamov has just one stretch of five straight starts. Holtby also has one stretch of five starts in a row, but he's been on the Hershey-to-Washington shuttle all season.
Varlamov just returned from a groin injury and played this past Friday in Ottawa, but Neuvirth fell ill and the Capitals didn't want to start Varlamov in back-to-back games so they summoned Holtby from Hershey. He made 18 saves in a 2-0 shutout of Montreal, and was returned to Hershey following the game.
Irbe said injuries and illnesses are natural in young goalies still learning how to prepare their bodies for the NHL grind. However, he's impressed by how well all three have reacted when called upon this season and is well aware that he's going to have to tend to a bruised ego or two once the playoffs begin.
"We know there is only one net and it might be two guys who are disappointed, but that's OK because that has to make them even hungrier," Irbe said. "That's my approach and I hope they get it. If they learn how to deal with it and deal with it at their best, maybe next time it'll help make you great."
Irbe said his message to all three is the same: Stay ready, because the next game it might be your net. That's precisely how he had to think in 2002 when Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice switched between Irbe and Weekes during a long playoff run.
"To be an NHL goalie alone is a big jump, but to be the No. 1, it's so much harder to get to that level," Irbe said. "That's why they have had the job and relinquished it or have been splitting at times. It's a lot to ask, but they are dealing with it, and at the end of the day somebody will emerge. I always say somebody will emerge sooner or later, but meanwhile it's been working for us so far.
"I'm just glad that they have this mentality because let alone it's hard to be the backup when you have the mentality of the No. 1, but it's twice as hard to be a backup who wants to be a No. 1 and still be supportive and positive and upbeat and really looking for the team's success."
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