Michal Neuvirth skated out to defend the home net at Verizon Center on Friday night as anxious as he has ever been in his NHL career. It had been seven weeks since he last appeared in a game, a layoff brought about first by injury and then falling down the depth chart, and the Washington Capitals goaltender wanted to make sure he had a strong outing.
But Neuvirth, whose most dominant on-ice traits are his poise and conservation of movement, never let his nerves show. He finished with 32 saves in his first start since Nov. 22, leading the Capitals to a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I was nervous as [heck]. Couldn’t really sleep in the pregame nap, but first time I step on the ice for the warmup I was feeling pretty good and confident,” said Neuvirth, whose agent recently requested the Capitals trade him because of his lack of playing time. “I just told myself, ‘It’s just another game. You’ve been [here] for some time in this league.’ I was confident. It was unbelievable feeling.”
Neuvirth’s performance may further complicate the Capitals’ outlook in net as they continue to juggle the 25-year-old, who was a healthy scratch for 11 consecutive games prior to Friday’s contest, upstart rookie Philipp Grubauer and Braden Holtby.
But on this night, it was simply a matter of Neuvirth helping Washington build on its momentum from a win the night before. The Capitals, having snapped a four-game losing streak in Tampa Bay on Thursday, could ill afford a setback while working to regain confidence and Neuvirth was there to make important stops as they managed to record consecutive regulation wins for just the second time this season.
“We’ve been waiting for wins in a bit now,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who earned a goal on a fluky play in the third period off Toronto forward Jay McClement. “We need to put together a couple wins in a row, that’s what we’re hoping. We’ve got to play the same way. We need these wins. This time of year is important. It’s going to be hard to catch up if you’re not in the top there.”
Facing 13 shots in the first period allowed Neuvirth to find his rhythm and the Maple Leafs, who have lost four straight, weren’t without quality chances. The best came less than four minutes in when Phil Kessel fed Tyler Bozak out in front for a quick tip, but Neuvirth snatched the puck in his glove to eliminate the threat.
The scoreless first period, though, was something of a wash between two teams that had clearly played the night before. Both the Capitals and Maple Leafs had spurts of momentum interspersed with fits of turnovers and unorganized play, but neither could take advantage of the mistakes.
“I thought the first period was a little sluggish to get going for both of us,” Coach Adam Oates said. “But I thought the intensity picked up in the second, and I thought the game was better from there.”
The middle period brought more life in the form of offense and truculence. Scraps and shoves began to break out after whistles early on and not long after the Capitals killed off a roughing minor to John Erskine, who jawed with Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf, they jumped ahead.
Alex Ovechkin beat Jonathan Bernier (32 saves) on a one-timer to record his 32nd goal of the year and put Washington up 1-0 at 6:39 after a nifty setup by former Maple Leafs player Mikhail Grabovski, who worked the puck out of the corner to the front of the net and then found the star right winger as he raced into the zone after coming off the bench.
But less than a minute after helping to set up the goal, Grabovski was whistled for tripping and the Maple Leafs tied the contest on the ensuing power play. James van Riemsdyk deflected a shot by Kessel past Neuvirth to draw Toronto even just 2:29 after the Capitals had scored. The rest of the period was highlighted by fisticuffs as Tom Wilson fought Carter Ashton and then as heavyweights Erskine and Colton Orr tussled.
Kessel put Toronto up 2-1 just 54 seconds into the third when he raced down the right wing and fired a shot that went off Karl Alzner’s stick and then sailed into the net above Neuvirth’s left shoulder. Just over a minute later, though, Neuvirth made an important glove save on a point-blank look by Mason Raymond to prevent the Maple Leafs from gaining any additional edge.
“That saved the game for us,” Oates said.
Then the Capitals got a little luck of their own at the 4:36 mark when Backstrom threw the puck on net and it went off McClement’s skate and in to knot the game at 2.
With just more than eight minutes to play in regulation, Toronto native Joel Ward put the Capitals ahead once more. A power play had only just expired and Washington continued to work the play down low in the offensive zone as if it were still on the man-advantage when Marcus Johansson found the big winger open in the slot. Ward, whose mother was in attendance, smashed a shot through Bernier for a goal that stood as the game-winner.
While it may have been Neuvirth’s happy return, he was glad to see the team succeed as a whole.
“I hadn’t played in a long time so I needed [my teammates] big tonight,” Neuvirth said. “Especially I needed a good start from them and they did it, stop a few shots from outside the scoring zone and got my confidence. Unbelievable team effort.”