Michal Neuvirth Sets Sights on Making the Capitals

Michal Neuvirth went 16-6 with a .932 save percentage in Hershey's American Hockey League title run.
Michal Neuvirth went 16-6 with a .932 save percentage in Hershey's American Hockey League title run. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

For a fraction of a second Tuesday, Michal Neuvirth envisioned the horrific possibilities as he lay facedown on the ice. He had just been bowled over by Alex Ovechkin, and the two-time MVP's skate grazed -- or did it slice? -- the left side of his neck during a violent collision.

As it turned out, Ovechkin's blade left only a flesh wound.

"No stitches, just glue," said the baby-faced Czech goaltender, pointing to a five-inch long scrape just below his jaw. "I could have got killed."

Neuvirth gingerly returned to the ice Wednesday with a plastic throat protector dangling from his mask. With just two weeks to force his way onto the Washington Capitals' opening night roster, taking the day off was not an option.

When training camp opened Sunday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Neuvirth was without a doubt the organization's third goalie behind veteran José Theodore and last season's playoff star, Semyon Varlamov. But after the first four days of practices and scrimmages, the 21-year-old has significantly closed the gap between himself and the incumbents.

"He's shown coolness under fire," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Varly is a great athlete and moves around a little bit. But Michal never looks like he's not under composure to me. He's got a lot of inner confidence. Last year helped him a tremendous deal."

Considering where Neuvirth was a year ago, the fact that he's even in the running for a spot with the Capitals is somewhat surprising. Following camp last September, he returned to the Czech Republic expecting to play in a professional league there. But not only did the arrangement fall through, a short while later he had appendicitis diagnosed and had to have emergency surgery.

When Neuvirth recovered, the Capitals had plenty of depth at goaltender, with Theodore and Brent Johnson in Washington and Varlamov and Daren Machesney in Hershey. Neuvirth was shipped off to the South Carolina Stingrays, Washington's affiliate in the ECHL, a second-tier pro league. It was his fifth team in two years.

By midseason, though, Neuvirth had been promoted to Hershey and was starting for the American Hockey League's Bears. He seized the spotlight in the postseason, leading the Bears to the Calder Cup championship. His statistics during Hershey's title run, a record of 16-6 to go with a .932 save percentage and 1.92 goals against average, earned him MVP of the playoffs.

"No one could even imagine what I've been through the last year," Neuvirth said. "I hope I'm finally going to get settled down. I want to play for the Caps, and that's what I'm trying to do -- prove I can play at this level.

"Now," he added, "I'm just hoping someone will give me a chance."

That chance begins in earnest this week. It's unclear in which preseason games Neuvirth will play, but he could get two or more starts as the coaching staff weighs which of the three goalies will get the two slots in Washington.

Karl Alzner, one of nine defensemen fighting for seven roster spots, said he could sympathize with the number crunch Neuvirth faces.

"After what Michal accomplished last year, on a lot of teams, a spot would have opened up for him," Alzner said. "The problem is, another goalie who is his same age did something pretty spectacular as well. It's just bad timing for him. If he ever needs someone to talk to, I'm his guy."

Neuvirth said he's ready to take the next step in his development, but he realizes that being reassigned to Hershey is a possibility. If that is indeed what happens, he'll look at it as one more obstacle he must overcome en route to the big leagues.

"If I get sent down," he said. "I will play good and I will want to win every game. . . . You just never know what's going to happen."

Capitals Notes: Led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble, Team A captured the second annual Gaetan Duchesne Cup -- Boudreau's award to the top group of training camp's intrasquad scrimmages -- with a 9-5 victory over Team B. Varlamov yielded eight goals in two periods of play.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company