Michal Neuvirth’s 32-save performance in Saturday night’s 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators delivered precisely what the Washington Capitals needed from the game’s most important position.
It also provided something they haven’t seen often enough of during this tumultuous season.
After surrendering a goal on a wrist shot from Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson that knotted the score at 1, Neuvirth stopped 15 of the Senators’ final 16 shots. He turned away difficult shots, controlled rebounds, and most important, exuded the calm and cool that can buoy a less-than-confident bench. As a result, he earned his first win in five starts and third star of the game for his efforts.
The Capitals can only hope that it was the start of a positive trend for their netminders.
With more than a quarter of the season in the books, goaltenders’ numbers are an accurate indication of how they’re playing. And right now, the stats suggest that Neuvirth has struggled and No. 1 netminder Tomas Vokoun has been solid, but unspectacular, mixed in with the occasional stinker (see: The Tampa Bay and New York Islanders games).
Overall, Vokoun is 10-7-0 with a 2.72 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. Both averages were 24th in the NHL among qualifying goalies entering Sunday night’s games. In the three seasons before he came to Washington, Vokoun posted save percentages of .926, .925 and .922 while playing on weak teams in Florida. It was the reason fans here salivated when he fell into General Manager George McPhee’s lap on the second day of free agency.
In his most recent start, Vokoun stopped 33 shots in a 2-1 loss to the Penguins. While it’s tough for a goalie to emerge with a “W” when the offense musters one measly goal, it was nearly impossible after he surrendered a goal such as Chris Kunitz’s strike less than three minutes into the third period of a tight-checking contest.
Kunitz’s goal came from between the circles as Capitals defenseman John Erskine lost his balance. It squeezed between Vokoun’s arm and his side, continuing a pattern of seemingly stoppable shots ending up in the net.
“Through this stretch, yes, there are goals that they should have stopped,” goalie coach Dave Prior said. “But at the end of the night, if you only scored one, was that a winnable game? It’s the games like the one on Long Island [a 5-3 loss on Nov. 5]; that game was winnable and Tomas didn’t win it for us.”
When Vokoun is on his game, he stops Kunitz’s wrist shot. The Caps saw him stop that puck routinely when they faced him as a member of the Panthers.
“It’s Tomas’s job to deliver that save. His positioning was perfect,” Prior said. “But it leaked through, so, yeah, I’d like him to make that save.”
Neuvirth, meanwhile, has admittedly been slow to adjust to playing infrequently. He is 3-4-1 with a 3.60 goals against average and an .878 save percentage. Both averages are the second-worst among 40 goalies ranked on NHL.com and represent a significant dropoff from the 2.45 and .914 he posted a season ago.
Two of Neuvirth’s worst outings were in relief appearances — in Toronto, where he yielded three goals on 11 shots in a 7-1 defeat, and in Vancouver, where he allowed four goals on 26 shots in 7-4 loss.
“Michal is a little victimized by the games he’s been in,” Prior said. “The Toronto game, that was, for me, our worst game of the year. If you take out the two games where he came out of the bullpen, those really erode your save percentage and shoot up your average.”
Neuvirth added: “It’s tough. It’s a new role for me. It’s another experience. I never was a backup.”
The belief around Kettler Capitals Iceplex is that new Coach Dale Hunter’s system will improve team defense, and thus, boost the goalies’ averages as well. When executed properly, Hunter said, the Capitals will stifle opponents in the neutral zone and limit odd-man rushes. Once the puck is in the defensive zone, they’ll force it to the outside.
“There’s been a huge difference already,” Prior said. “Dale plays a more conservative game, and even though Tomas faced numerous scoring chances [against Pittsburgh], they were still ones that the goaltender could deliver saves on.”
There are signs that Hunter’s style is already yielding results, despite the Capitals’ 1-2-0 record since his appointment. In the two games Vokoun has started since Bruce Boudreau was fired, he surrendered a pair of goals in each contest and has a combined .938 save percentage.
Neuvirth’s .941 save percentage against the Senators was his best since a .960 percentage in a 5-1 win over Carolina on Nov. 4.
“We’re trying to not give up the breakaways and keep shots from outside more,” Hunter said. The goalie “feels a little more rubber, but they’re not as dangerous.”
With only a few exceptions, top teams generally have one thing in common: They get consistently strong outings from their goalies. In fact, the starters on the Eastern Conference’s top four teams all boast better save percentages than Vokoun. Tim Thomas has a .936 save percentage in Boston; Henrik Lundqvist has a .932 percentage in New York; Florida’s Jose Theodore has a .924 percentage; and Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury is at .923.
Vokoun’s past performance suggests he belongs in that group. Neuvirth has proved he possesses enough talent to be a capable backup, if not more.
Now it’s time for both to start showing it on a consistent basis.