English may not be Michal Neuvirth’s first language, but he knows an insult when he hears one. So when Pittsburgh Coach Dan Bylsma questioned his talent during HBO’s recent “24/7” series about the Caps-Penguins rivalry, Neuvirth paid attention. Close attention.
Still, he had no idea he was going to get a chance to make Bylsma eat those words until Sunday morning. That’s when he found out that fellow goalie Semyon Varlamov was ill and that Neuvirth would be making his first start in nearly three weeks that afternoon, on national television, against a team that the Caps and their fans love to hate.
Despite some rust and some nerves — and an illness of his own — Neuvirth pitched just the second shutout of his career as Washington took a 3-0 victory at Verizon Center. Afterward, Neuvirth admitted Bylsma’s remarks were on his mind.
“Before the game, I remember when he said that, and I looked at him during the warmup and told myself, ‘I got to shut these guys out tonight,’ ” Neuvirth said.
Bylsma’s slight came on Dec. 23, during the last meeting between these two teams at Verizon Center. “We gotta shoot the puck . . . ” he said. “This goalie isn’t that good, all right? He will give us rebounds, he has, and he will give us cheesy ones on the net.”
The Caps lost that night in a shootout despite playing one of their best games of the season. Until Sunday, Neuvirth had played in only three games since then, the most recent on Jan. 18 against Philadelphia, when he came out after the first period with an injury. Though the Capitals have not formally designated a No. 1 goalie, Varlamov has had the hot hand, and Boudreau has been taking full advantage.
The Penguins got no “cheesy ones” on Sunday. Neuvirth made the most of his opportunity, making stick saves, glove saves, pad saves, body saves, smothering saves, lucky saves — 2224 in all. He may have opened a savings account between periods. He got a lot of help and protection from his defensemen as well.
Of course, the Penguins were not at full strength. Sidney Crosby missed his 13th game with a concussion and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that he might not return until March. Evgeni Malkin is out for the season after tearing two knee ligaments. That’s a lot of lost firepower, and it’s a credit to Pittsburgh that it had won eight of its past nine games without Crosby entering Sunday. But it’s also a credit to Neuvirth that he was able to stop 22 24 shots after nearly three weeks out of action and on a few hours’ notice.
“He did make some saves as we did have a couple flurries,” Bylsma said afterward. “There was a couple pucks in the crease that he was strong on and we could have been much better.”
Not glowing praise, but better than “cheesy ones,” certainly. Neuvirth’s performance was also crucial because it gave the Caps well-played, back-to-back wins. They played perhaps their best game of the season Friday night against the division-leading Lightning in Tampa. They have two more home games this week to build on that momentum before heading off on a five-game trip that will take them to Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose, Buffalo and, finally, Pittsburgh. (The league office might as well be put on alert now. A lot of blood was spilled Sunday — most of it the Caps’ — and it seems unlikely the physical or emotional wounds will be healed by Feb. 21.)
Sunday’s win gave Neuvirth a 16-6-4 record this season, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.46 goals against average, good numbers, but not as good as Varlamov’s; his .928 save percentage and 2.13 GAA both rank third in the NHL.
“That’s the great thing about having two young goalies who thrive on playing,” Boudreau said.
The first hint Neuvirth had that he might be starting was a text message Saturday night from goalies coach Arturs Irbe. He wasn’t feeling well himself, but no matter. He found out about 9 Sunday morning that he’d be starting.
“He’s been battling,” Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. “He’s had a few injuries, he’s been sick, but he’s been working harder. He’s been practicing hard, harder than I’ve seen him practice all season. He came to the rink, I don’t know if he was prepared, I don’t think he was scheduled to start, but I’m really happy for him. It’s nice to see when hard work pays off. He got going against a great opponent in Pittsburgh.”
Neuvirth didn’t realize Sunday’s game was going to be nationally televised, and he also couldn’t have been aware of the Caps’ stellar Super Bowl Sunday record — 8-0 at Verizon Center, 14-3-1 overall. After all, he’s never even seen a Super Bowl.
“This is going to be my first Super Bowl game ever,” Neuvirth said. “I’m excited to watch it with the boys. It’s going to be fun.”
“I might have to teach him a few things,” said Hendricks, laughing.
That shouldn’t be hard. Neuvirth has already proved to be a quick study.