For the third straight season, Michal Neuvirth arrived at training camp with another goaltender seemingly anointed as the top option on the Washington Capitals’ depth chart. And for the third straight season, Neuvirth took it in stride, confident he would eventually get an opportunity to prove himself.
The chance came early this year, with three starts in the first five games, and Neuvirth’s performances are making a powerful case that it’s his time to serve as headliner in the Capitals’ net.
“More I play, I’m feeling more comfortable. I expect me to play even better,” said Neuvirth, who will make his fourth consecutive start for the Capitals when they visit the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday. “I mean, I’m just trying to play my game, stay on the top of the crease and be patient. Try and stay positive the whole game.”
After Braden Holtby allowed 10 goals in the first two games, Neuvirth lost his season debut, 4-1, to Montreal. Although all three defeats reflected the Capitals’ overall struggle adapting to a new coach and system more so than either goaltender himself, Coach Adam Oates was encouraged enough by Neuvirth’s opener to give him a second start in as many days.
Neuvirth responded with a superb 32-save showing in an overtime loss to New Jersey to help Washington earn its first point and a 22-save outing against Buffalo two days later to secure the team’s first win. He posted a .915 save percentage and 2.40 goals against average in those two contests.
“I get a little defensive on his behalf when people are sort of surprised,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “He’s got a head on his shoulders that handles pressure well. I’m not surprised how he’s played here. I’m happy for him and both of them are very respectful of each other as goaltenders and just wanting to provide good enough goaltending for this team.”
Neuvirth, 24, has always had to fight for playing time in his professional career.
When Washington selected two goaltenders 11 picks apart in the 2006 entry draft, it set up a pecking order: Semyon Varlamov, now with the Colorado Avalanche, went 23rd overall and Neuvirth followed at 34th. When they both turned pro in 2008-09, Neuvirth was assigned to the East Coast Hockey League, two steps removed from the NHL, while Varlamov cut his teeth in the American Hockey League.
“That was the only time I’ve seen him really upset with us because he felt there was favoritism,” Prior said. “That was the only way to give both of them starting jobs.”
By the end of the year, Neuvirth was leading the Hershey Bears to the first of two consecutive Calder Cup titles while Varlamov stepped into the playoffs in Washington. In 2010-11, he was expected to primarily serve as a backup but made 48 appearances and started all nine playoff games when frequent injuries derailed Varlamov.
Varlamov was traded to Colorado in the summer of 2011 but Neuvirth went from presumed starter to backup in a span of 24 hours when the Capitals signed veteran Tomas Vokoun as a free agent. Neuvirth was preparing for another playoff run when Vokoun went down with a groin injury last spring, but was sidelined by a hip flexor injury that paved the way for Holtby’s emergence.
Holtby started each of Washington’s 14 playoff games last season, stopping 429 of the 459 shots he faced through two rounds for a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals against average. His strong performance led many to believe that perhaps Neuvirth’s chance to assert himself as the go-to option in net had passed.
“I think Michal believes he’s as good as Braden and was playing excellent when he got hurt,” Prior said. “So I think for him it’s just nothing’s changed in his mind about himself. It’s more, ‘They don’t want to give me this opportunity’.”
Regardless of outside circumstances, the Czech native’s approach never changed. He quickly signed with Sparta Praha in the Czech Extraliga when the lockout took hold so he could stay sharp and since he arrived back in Washington, Neuvirth has insisted that he’s taking a patient view of the compressed schedule.
“I know from my experience, it’s a long season and you never know. I just want to work hard every day and, if I get the chance, I want to help my team to get a ‘W,’ ” Neuvirth said. “It’s tough to go with one guy the whole season, there’s always some up and downs but I’m trying to play the same way all season.”
Teammates say Neuvirth has served as a crutch for the Capitals, propping them up when errors in execution threatened their opportunity for success.
“He’s been outstanding for us,” Mike Green said. “He’s given us the motivation and momentum to play our game and stay strong. I think it was a little deflating, the first two games we didn’t play as well as we wanted to and we didn’t help out our goaltender [Holtby] at all. To have Michal come in and play well gave us the confidence to push through the bad luck.”