NHL playoffs: Capitals survive Rangers in battle of the goalies

One was making his first NHL playoff start, the other his 31st. One found out he was starting Tuesday morning, the other has a stranglehold on his job. One is a 23-year-old rookie, the other is 29, and a six-year NHL veteran.

One is Michal Neuvirth; the other Henrik Lundqvist, known as King Henrik to the colonists of New Amsterdam. They faced each other across the length of the Verizon Center ice Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, and what could have been a lopsided lesson in playoff hockey turned into an epic showdown between top-notch goalies and stifling defenses. It finally ended when Alexander Semin sent the puck low past Lundqvist’s stick side with one minute 36 seconds remaining in overtime, giving the Capitals a 2-1 victory and Neuvirth his first playoff win.

“It’s huge, good for my confidence, but it’s just one game,” said Neuvirth, who said he took the game “minute to minute, save by save.”

The Caps had better looks at the goal than did the Rangers for most of the night, but both teams were stymied for two periods. Early in the third, Matt Gilroy somehow got a shot past Neuvirth. Down 1-0, “I didn’t know at that point if there was a way to beat that guy,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Lundqvist. But with a little more than six minutes remaining in regulation, Alex Ovechkin surgically, magically, inexplicably convinced the puck to crawl under Lundqvist’s pad. That sent the game into overtime.

Lundqvist put on a goaltending clinic for much of Wednesday night, but Neuvirth proved he’s not in need of one. “I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “I had a good nap before the game.” The Swede faced 33 shots and at times seemed unbreakable, but Neuvirth turned away 25 and was just as frosty, especially in overtime.

“He played great, just like Lundqvist,” Boudreau said. “Both were outstanding. That’s how I knew Michal would play.”

That optimism wasn’t based on Neuvirth’s previous start against the Rangers. On Feb. 25, he allowed six goals on 28 shots in a 6-0 loss at Verizon Center, his worst performance of the season.

Boudreau threw Neuvirth right back in the net the next night and Neuvirth responded with a victory, stopping 29 of 31 shots against the Islanders. In fact, since the loss to the Rangers – excluding a March 7 game, when he left with an injury after one period – Neuvirth finished the season with a 9-2 record, a 2.13 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.

The Caps had their best month in March, going 12-2-1 with 25 points; Neuvirth was 7-1 with a 2.09 goals against average and .931 save percentage. Overall during the regular season, he was 27-12-4 with a .914 save percentage and a 2.45 goals against average , and finished third among rookies in wins and goals against average.

So although the cagey Boudreau played his goalie card close to his vest before the series began, there really was no question that Neuvirth had earned the Game 1 start. There’s also no question that he can just as easily find himself on the bench sometime during this series, or even this weekend.

Neuvirth may be the elder statesman among Caps goalies, at the ripe old age of 23, but 22-year-old Semyon Varlamov has more playoff experience, and although injuries limited him to 27 games this season (11-9-5), he had a .924 save percentage and a 2.23 goals against average. And then there’s 21-year-old Braden Holtby, whose 10-2-2 record during various stints with Caps this season gives Boudreau a third – and very attractive – option just waiting at Hershey in the American Hockey League, where Neuvirth won back-to-back Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010.

The Rangers, on the other hand, had no goalie decision to make. Lundqvist made his 26th straight start between the pipes and his 69th of the season. He had a career-high 11 shutouts this season, most by a Rangers goalie since 1928-29. Two of those came against the Capitals, with Lundqvist stopping a total of 66 shots. He’s also won 30 games in six consecutive seasons.

If good goalies are vacuums, then Lundqvist was a Dyson on Wednesday night. Perhaps that explains the sellout crowd’s chants of “Rangers Have Suction” – or something similar.

But Neuvirth matched him stop for stop, move for move, earning chants of his own. “Neu-vy! Neu-vy!” screamed the sellout crowd. He surely earned something else as well – the start in Game 2, and probably beyond. The job is his to lose now.

“I’m sure we’ll all give him a hug for what he did tonight,” said defenseman Mike Green. “It was a big moment for him.”

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