By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; D01
Michal Neuvirth did a double take when he came out for warmups Saturday night and saw Martin Brodeur opposite him. But if the sight made him nervous, the 21-year-old rookie had a funny way of showing it.
Neuvirth made 29 stops to outduel Brodeur, and Nicklas Backstrom recorded a goal and two assists as the Washington Capitals handed the New Jersey Devils a 4-1 defeat at Verizon Center.
The win was the Capitals' first in four games this season against Brodeur and the Devils. It was also their third in a row overall and it propelled them past New Jersey and into the top spot in the NHL standings with 54 points.
"I'm feeling unbelievable right now," a baby-faced Neuvirth said. "I just beat the best goalie in the world. It's amazing. I used to watch him on TV, so it's something special."
The win was Neurvirth's third in three games and has given Coach Bruce Boudreau a new measure of confidence in him -- especially since Semyon Varlamov's strained groin muscle seems to be taking longer to heal than expected.
But as impressive as Neuvirth was, he didn't do it alone. Alex Ovechkin started the Capitals' assault on Brodeur less than five minutes into the game, and the league's most prolific offense didn't let up. Matt Bradley, Backstrom and Mike Green also scored as they amassed 40 shots before a capacity crowd, the second highest total yielded by the defensively conscious Devils all season.
"I don't know how important it was in the whole scheme of things," Boudreau said. "But we certainly didn't want, at this stage, at the end of December, to be thinking we went four games and didn't beat them at all."
Being swept by a team they may face in the playoffs is no longer a concern.
Neuvirth stopped Rob Niedermayer with a big glove save less than a minute into the game. Then Ovechkin, with his 25th goal and first on Brodeur in four years, put the Devils behind early. The two-time MVP opened the scoring only 4:09 into the contest after Backstrom won a faceoff back to him in the offensive zone. Ovechkin gathered the puck in the circle and then whipped a wrist shot under Brodeur's blocker.
About 10 minutes later, Bradley extended the Capitals' lead to 2-0 with a fluky goal. After a nifty pass from David Steckel, Bradley kicked the puck to his skate and fired a shot that hit Mike Mottau's stick. The puck fluttered up in the air and off Brodeur's outstretched glove before falling over the goal line.
After a stellar first 17 minutes, Neuvirth made his only mistake of the night.
Rod Pelley cut the Devils' deficit in half with a wrist shot that sneaked between the goalie's blocker and side to send the game into the second period with the Capitals leading 2-1. Neuvirth said the puck hit defenseman John Erskine before eluding him.
"He looked pretty solid," Boudreau said of Neuvirth. "He would probably like to have the goal back that beat him. But he was giving nothing up. There were no big rebounds. As [General Manager George McPhee said], he looked like Velcro."
Boudreau, like the rest of the Washington organization, has been eager to get an extended look at Neuvirth, a second-round draft pick in 2006. But the decision to give him a third straight game did not go over well with veteran José Theodore, who broke his stick blade when he came off the ice following the morning skate before issuing a terse, "I just work here."
For one night, though, the only goalie anyone was talking about was the rookie from the Czech Republic. He was recalled on Dec. 9 after Varlamov suffered his injury. Now, it's looking like Neuvirth's stay might be a little bit longer because Varlamov's groin muscle has been slow to respond to treatment. He was limited to skating Saturday and did not face shots.
"We don't know when Varly is going to be ready -- we're hoping sooner rather than later," Boudreau said. "But when you have a guy like Theo or Neuvy, you can get Varly right. You don't have to rush him back."
Early in the second period, Washington caught the break it needed. New Jersey's Jay Pandolfo had a goal waved off because, after a video review, it was determined that he had knocked the potential game-tying goal into the net with a high stick.
About five minutes later, the momentum had shifted squarely in favor of the Capitals. Alexander Semin poked a puck from the corner into the slot, where Backstrom made a move then lifted perfectly placed backhand over Brodeur to stretch the Capitals' lead to 3-1.
Just 39 seconds into the third period, Green put the game out of the Devils' reach. The defenseman glided into position, picked his spot then fired a shot over Brodeur's glove to put the Capitals ahead 4-1.
"I think we played a complete game," Boudreau said. "I thought it was a great effort on our part."