By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:45 AM
RALEIGH, N.C. - Michal Neuvirth already made a smattering of strong stops during the Carolina Hurricanes' power play in the second period when Eric Staal took aim in the right faceoff circle. It was the tail end of the man-advantage and Neuvirth stretched across the crease to make a dazzling glove save on what looked like a sure goal for the Hurricanes' captain to preserve the Washington Capitals' then one-goal lead.
Neuvirth turned away 29 shots for the first NHL shutout of his career.
Neuvirth's performance highlighted a strong overall effort by the Capitals (6-3), who have won two straight and continue their stretch of three road games in four days Thursday against the Minnesota Wild (3-3).
"I think we played a great game as a team," said Neuvirth, who stopped six shots by Carolina (4-4) all-star Staal alone and improved his save percentage to .929 this season. "The first time we did that was [Wednesday] and it's a big two points on the road. The shutout is just an unexpected bonus for myself but I'm happy with two points."
The score that Neuvirth protected for the majority of the contest, Matt Hendricks's first tally of the season, was the product of hard work from the fourth line. Defenseman John Erskine wristed a shot toward the Carolina net and despite colliding with Ward, David Steckel gained control of the puck while on his back and sent the puck to Hendricks, who made it 1-0 Washington midway through the first period.
The goal was also the Capitals' first first-period tally since Oct. 11, a 3-2 victory over Ottawa.
Hendricks and Steckel teamed with Matt Bradley, who returned to the ice after missing five games with a lower-body injury. The trio dished out four hits and established a strong forecheck in the opening 20 minutes as all four of the Capitals' forward lines buckled down in the close game.
"It was the first game on a long road trip," said Steckel, who had an assist and won 13 of the 18 faceoffs on Wednesday. "We needed to make sure we were playing disciplined. We took some stupid penalties, but for the most part discipline let us get pucks deep, get pucks out and playing the way that we know how to play."
Neither Neuvirth nor Ward gave up much ground once Washington took its one-goal lead, although both got lucky a few times.
The Capitals rang a few shots off the post, as did the Hurricanes, who also had a scoring chance by rookie Jeff Skinner reviewed in the second period but the on-ice call of no-goal was upheld.
Each save and smart decision Neuvirth made to minimize his risk in the crease against Carolina, appeared to pump up the Capitals even more.
By game's end they blocked 16 shots, thwarted five power plays and every minor victory - whether team or stop by Neuvirth - started to show signs of irritating the Hurricanes.
In the three weeks since the regular season began, Neuvirth proclaimed his presence as something more than simply a backup goaltender or a little-known 22-year-old with success in the American Hockey League.
Following a strong shift in the Capitals zone that ultimately yielded little tangible results, Carolina's Chad LaRose swung his stick into the end boards behind Neuvirth's net in frustration. Not long after that stop, Washington's top line broke the one-goal deadlock with a goal by Nicklas Backstrom, who would also add an empty net goal for the game's final tally.
"I think everyone contributed tonight," Hendricks said. "Guys don't always have to show up on the scoresheet to help a team win and what can you say about Neuvy? He played outstanding. [Having him back there] helps us tons. We know that with the high offensive potency that some of the guys have on this team we know he's going to be our backstop every night."
In three weeks since the season opened, Neuvirth has proclaimed his arrival to the rest of the NHL.
And to Coach Bruce Boudreau, Neuvirth is only proving what the Capitals knew all along.
"I don't know if he's getting better," Boudreau said, when asked how Neuvirth's play has improved through eight starts. "I just think people are starting to realize that you don't win the Calder Cup two years in a row as a 20 year-old without being a pretty good goaltender."