Although he had not started a game in 23 days, Michal Neuvirth proved two points with Wednesday’s 3-0 shutout in Montreal: He’s still one of the NHL’s best young goaltenders and, just as important given his current role, he’s able to remain sharp and focused despite a lack of playing time.
The big question ahead of Friday’s game in Raleigh – the Capitals were not expected to hold a team practice today – is whether Coach Dale Hunter plans to give Neuvirth a second straight start, or hand the reins back to No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun.
Asked following his 31-save performance at Bell Centre whether he had earned another game, Neuvirth was predictably diplomatic.
“Yeah, you know, I’m pretty happy with my performance, but Vokey’s playing great right now and we’ve been winning all the hockey games,” Neuvirth told reporters. “So he’s No. 1 and I’m just happy to get a start, and I got a big ‘W’ for myself and the team.”
The argument for starting Neuvirth against the Hurricanes is that he’s already defeated them on the road this season. The 23-year-old made 24 saves on Nov. 4 to backstop the Capitals to a 5-1 victory.
Neuvirth's career numbers against Carolina are also strong. He's 3-1-0 with a 2.24 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.
And, of course, there’s the fact that he was just about perfect against the Canadiens. Neuvirth frustrated the Habs, thwarting all seven of their power plays by turning aside nine shots.
“The guys did an awesome job blocking the shots and paying the price,” Neuvirth said of the Capitals’ penalty kill and the team’s 25 blocked shots. “That’s what it takes to win the hockey game sometimes.”
His teammates, though, felt Neuvirth was the one who had bailed them out.
“I just shook his hand,” center Brooks Laich said. “I thought Michal was exceptional. He made the saves. He covered the rebounds. He kicked things to the corner. He was tremendous.”
Winger Matt Hendricks added: “It was a heck of an effort by everybody, but Michal Neuvirth had an outstanding game.”
The shutout – Neuvirth’s second this season and the sixth of his career – figures to be major confidence boost for a goalie who, at times this season, has suffered from a lack it. With the win, the Czech is now 6-7-2 with a 3.02 goals against average and a .894 save percentage.
Neuvirth had not played at all since Jan. 9 in Los Angeles, where he relieved Vokoun in the third period of a 5-2 loss. He had not started a game since getting pulled after yielding three goals on six shots in the first period of an eventual 4-2 defeat in Buffalo on Dec. 26.
Vokoun started the next 10 games in a row, cementing his spot as Hunter’s No. 1.
“Tomas has been on pretty good run and Michal had to sit there and watch it,” winger Mike Knuble said. “So I’m pretty sure he had some inspiration, in that the next time he got in the crease he was going to play well.
“To win in this league,” Knuble added, “you need great goaltending all the time.”