By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Washington Capitals rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth spent this past weekend going from backing up José Theodore in Washington on Saturday night, to starting for the Hershey Bears on Sunday, to back in goal at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for practice with the NHL team Monday morning.
But after bouncing between South Carolina of the ECHL and AHL Hershey, Neuvirth is happy to travel as much as is necessary to return to Washington.
"I had to borrow [Tomas] Fleischmann's girlfriend's car to get there," Neuvirth said with a laugh. "I'm happy she let me, but it was a crazy couple days. In Hershey, I finally got some of my clothes, too, but most of my stuff is still in South Carolina."
Neuvirth (pronounced NOY-virt) has served as Washington's backup goaltender since Feb. 3, after injuries sidelined both Brent Johnson and the organization's top-rated prospect, Simeon Varlamov. He is itching to make a lasting impression on Capitals coaches and management. The 20-year-old may well get his opportunity during Washington's three-game trip, which begins tonight at Madison Square Garden.
While Neuvirth is not expected to start against the Rangers, who have lost their past five games and scored just five goals during that stretch, he could make his NHL debut during the first of back-to-back games this weekend against Tampa Bay and Florida. This after starting the season two levels removed from the NHL.
"If someone would have told me I'm going to be in Washington in February after starting the year in the ECHL, I don't know if I would believe it," said Neuvirth, who has played for eight teams in the past 15 months.
Both Varlamov and Neuvirth, first- and second-round draft picks, respectively, in 2006, entered training camp equally billed as Washington's goaltenders of the future, but a surplus of prospects left the Capitals with too many netminders and not enough positions to put them in.
Without a spot for him on Hershey's roster, the organization tried to loan Neuvirth to another AHL team or a club in his native Czech Republic, knowing that his ability had already passed the level of play in the ECHL. But the deals fell through, and Neuvirth was assigned to South Carolina.
"I was upset," Neuvirth said. "I felt I was a better goalie than playing in the [ECHL]. It was a hard time for me. So I just kept battling and kept working and when I made the ECHL all-star game, everything started to turn over."
But as Neuvirth excelled in South Carolina, Varlamov made his impressive NHL debut. Varlamov stopped 61 of 64 shots in wins against Montreal and St. Louis in December, causing many to believe that he had pulled ahead of Neuvirth in the Capitals' eyes. Neuvirth, meanwhile, has just nine games with Hershey to his credit, going 4-3-2 with an .890 save percentage and 3.03 goals against average.
Coach Bruce Boudreau still sees the young netminders on an even footing, though, and added that "two games don't make a season."
"Michal knows he's a pretty good goaltender," Boudreau said. "He believes the sky is the limit for him and that's what we want him to believe. It has been a tough first year for him . . . but the positive thing is that each step has been an upgrade. He's shown me in practice that he can stop the puck, so we'll see how this goes for him."
Capitals Notes: Forward Viktor Kozlov did not practice yesterday and will likely miss his third straight game tonight with a groin muscle pull. He will make the trip, though, and could play on the weekend, Boudreau said. . . .
Winger Alexander Semin is questionable for tonight's game against the Rangers with an undisclosed injury. If Semin is unable to play the Capitals will likely recall a forward from Hershey.