Michal Neuvirth earned his fifth straight win in the Capitals’ 3-2 shootout win over the Maple Leafs Tuesday. In his last 13 starts, which includes the game against Tampa Bay on March 7 that he was forced to leave after the first period after a shard of metal flew into his eye, Neuvirth is 10-2-0 and by all appearances the 22-year-old Czech will be Washington’s starter when the playoffs begin next week.
It’s been a somewhat unpredictable season for the Capitals’ goaltenders this year, whether in regard to injuries or how quickly a player like Braden Holtby was able to make himself a factor in the organization’s NHL plan. But over the course of the season, Neuvirth has served as Washington’s workhorse going 27-11-4.
Neuvirth has started the last three games for the Capitals, allowing eight goals on 82 shots during that span, and will likely get one more contest out of the two regular-season outings that remain. This recent stretch has seen Neuvirth plagued with goals off deflections, like Toronto’s first tally that went off Karl Alzner, but Coach Bruce Boudreau continually emphasizes that the young goaltender is always ready in the game’s critical moments.
Neuvirth makes “big saves when he has to and when the game’s on the line,” Boudreau said. “The first goal was deflected again. I was starting to feel bad for him because and then the other goal and he couldn’t do anything about – [Jeff Schultz] should have had the guy. When [Joey] Crabb had that shot in the third period they had some really good opportunities, he stood his ground and did a great job of controlling rebounds.”
Those comments echoed Boudreau’s sentiments from after Washington’s 4-3 overtime win against Columbus on March 31.
“Doesn’t matter if you got five by him or one by him,” Boudreau said of Neuvirth after the Capitals beat the Blue Jackets. “He’s really good when the game is on the line and he had to make some real good saves at the end to preserve it. That’s, to me, the sign of a real winner.”
Now Boudreau hasn’t come out and officially said that Neuvirth will start the playoffs (and to be sure, it remains to be seen how much leeway he gives any goaltender in the playoffs) but given his workload recently and the coach’s comments it’s hard not to believe that is the case.
For Neuvirth, the spring is his time. He has not lost a playoff series in North America in either juniors or the American Hockey League. After the win against Toronto, Neuvirth was asked if he would want a significant amount of rest before the playoffs.
“I don’t know. We’ve still got two more games left and like I said, I felt better today,” Neuvirth said. “I don’t need rest. I want to play and I can’t wait for playoffs.”
The confidence that Neuvirth has rubs off on his teammates as well. Jason Arnott has played with several veteran, well-established goaltenders over the course of his career like Martin Brodeur in New Jersey and Marty Turco in Dallas but one of the biggest benefits of their experience – peace of mind with a steady goaltender in net – is something that Neuvirth has proven able to provide as well.
“He carries himself in a very confident manner in that he goes out and he knows what he has to do to win us games,” Arnott said. “If an easy goal goes in he doesn’t get rattled, he plays the same way, which is a veteran thing to do.”