Three Washington Capitals goalies have had stretches when each looked worthy of consideration for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Rookie Michal Neuvirth will get the call, drawing the first postseason start of his NHL career tomorrow night against the New York Rangers.
Neuvirth went 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average, four shutouts and a .914 save percentage. He set the franchise record for most wins by a rookie goaltender, became the first Capitals goalie to log 10 wins in his team’s first 16 games, tied Olie Kolzig’s club record for longest home winning streak (10) and was the youngest Washington goalie to start an opener since Jim Carrey in 1996-97.
Now he makes his postseason debut opposite Henrik Lundqvist, among the most skilled goalies in the game and a nemesis to the Capitals this season and in previous playoff series.
“I’m not nervous,” Neuvirth said following practice this morning. “I’m pretty excited. It’s an interesting game, you know. I’ve been waiting for this game all season long. It’s a good challenge and good opportunity for me.”
Even though Neuvirth, 23, is new to the demands of an NHL postseason, he is not without professional playoff experience. As the starting goalie for the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, Neuvirth won consecutive Calder Cups, including being named most valuable player in 2008-09.
In two seasons with Hershey, Neuvirth combined to go 30-10, including five shutouts, in the playoffs with a 2.05 GAA.
“He hasn’t been through this,” Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Neuvirth having to deal with the increased media attention during the NHL playoffs. “But he’s been through championship series and everything else. He’s ready. I don’t have to say anything to him. As a matter of fact, I’ve tried not to say anything to him for fear that it would get him wound up or whatever.
“He does what he does. He’s played really big in big games for us, and we’ve got a lot of belief in him.”
Neuvirth finished the season winning nine of 11 games and five of his final six. His only loss during that span was 1-0 to Florida in Saturday’s regular season finale, when he stopped 22 of 23 shots.
Neuvirth has played twice this season against the Rangers. On Nov. 9, he stopped 25 of 28 shots in a 5-3 victory at Madison Square Garden. On Feb. 25, he allowed six goals on 28 shots in a 6-0 loss at Verizon Center that was among the club’s most disastrous of the season.
Backing up Neuvirth will be Semyon Varlamov (11-9-5, 2.23 GAA), who has the most playoff experience among any of the Capitals’ goalies. Varlamov has played in 19 postseason games over the past two seasons, including going 7-6 in 2008-09. Washington also used Braden Holtby this season. Holtby went 10-2-2 with a 1.79 GAA and .934 save percentage.
“We’re comfortable any which way,” defenseman Scott Hannan said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in everybody in this room. We got a lot of good players. We’ve got a lot of depth, and we know we’re going to need it.”