As Capitals prepare to face Flyers, Bruce Boudreau reaffirms faith in Michal Neuvirth
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 12:13 AM
After each of the Washington Capitals' past two games, Coach Bruce Boudreau remarked that Michal Neuvirth looked a little tired, that the wear and tear of playing games every other day in the pressure-packed role of a starting goaltender in the NHL is different than anything he's faced in his professional career.
Less than 24 hours after pulling the 22-year-old with 10 minutes remaining against the Boston Bruins, a move that reflected both a perceived lack of sharpness by the goaltender and the need to jump-start the Capitals after they gave up a three-goal lead, Boudreau reaffirmed his commitment to Neuvirth.
"He's been so good for us," Boudreau said, adding that he would not hesitate to start Neuvirth, who has served as Washington's workhorse in net this season, Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center. "We wouldn't have the record we have right now if it wasn't for him. I said [to Neuvirth], 'Don't worry about it.' "
Entering this season, the Capitals didn't imagine that they would be relying solely on one of their two young goaltenders this early in the year. But with Semyon Varlamov restricted to injured reserve for all but three games with a groin injury, Washington turned to Neuvirth to shoulder the role as a top goaltender.
Through 13 games, Neuvirth has played 673 minutes and made 12 starts. He holds an 8-3-0 record with a 2.41 goals against average and .914 save percentage. More valuable than concluding statistics though, has been Neuvirth's ability to steadily make big saves whenever the Capitals require them.
Several times, including a 3-2 overtime win against Nashville and 2-1 victory against the Islanders on Oct. 16 and 13 respectively, poised play from Neuvirth kept games within Washington's reach until the Capitals found a way to earn a win and reward his effort.
"He's like the Chris Pronger in net. He gets things done and he makes it look effortless that's pretty tough to do as a goaltender," said defenseman Karl Alzner, who played with Neuvirth in Hershey the last two years. "He does so many little things really well and he makes saves that he's not always expected to make, going post-to-post or on a really good shot that goes upstairs, and he bails you out a lot of times. Those can be times that can change a game and he always seems to come up big in those moments."
Responsibility is not new to the Usti Labem, Czech Republic native. In each of the two previous seasons, Neuvirth played every game for the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup playoffs.
That experience however, doesn't mean there isn't an adjustment for Neuvirth when making the jump to starting all but one of the Capitals' 13 games in the first 29 days of the 2010-11 regular season.
As a No. 1 goaltender for Hershey last season, Neuvirth would play two out of three games on the weekends, which is typical of the AHL schedule with games most often on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The rest of the week allowed for practice, and more importantly, recovery time for all players not just goaltenders.
"It's a big difference and it creates a lot of pressure on the goalie," Neuvirth said. "You think the whole game, focused the whole 60 minutes and you're there by yourself with that pressure every day. It's been a tough month for me, but I don't want to make excuses. I've played a lot of games and I was trying really hard to play my best and I want to keep doing that job."
Only in the Capitals' most recent two games - an eventual 5-4 shootout win against the Toronto Maple Leafs and a 5-3 victory against the Bruins - did Neuvirth not look quite as well-calculated for the duration of the contest. In the two games combined, he allowed seven goals on 42 shots.
Against Toronto, despite allowing three goals in the third period he rallied for key stops on Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin in the shootout to preserve a victory. Friday against Boston marked one of the first contests in which the Capitals didn't require Neuvirth to stand on his head for the first 40 minutes, but when the Bruins scored three goals before 10 minutes elapsed in the third period Boudreau saw a difference in his netminder.
"In the first two periods [against Boston] he was good," Boudreau said. "Just the second goal he'd like to have back and on the third goal he knows he guessed wrong, but Michal doesn't usually guess. I don't know if [pulling Neuvirth] was the right thing to do. I might have got lucky with the change, but it is what it is. He knows I have all the faith in him in the world and he'll be playing a lot of games this year."
Capitals note: The team announced Saturday afternoon that it has assigned rookie center Marcus Johansson to Hershey.