NEWARK — Michal Neuvirth sat on the Washington Capitals’ bench for four games over the past two weeks watching Braden Holtby put forth stellar performances on his third call-up to the NHL this year. Friday night against the desperate New Jersey Devils, Neuvirth offered a reminder of how much of a workhorse he has been this season.
Despite facing a drastically higher number of shots and scoring chances than counterpart Martin Brodeur, the game’s all-time leader in wins, the 22-year-old Czech made 33 saves to lead Washington in a 3-0 win over the Devils. The victory improved the Capitals to 94 points to tie the Philadelphia Flyers, who have one more victory and three games in hand, atop the Eastern Conference standings.
Neuvirth recorded his fourth shutout of the season in his second game since returning to the net after a shard of metal got in his eye on March 7 at Tampa Bay, an injury that opened the door for Holtby’s hot streak. But Neuvirth said after Friday’s win that his ultimate goal is to be the team’s starting goaltender when the playoffs begin next month.
“Of course, I wanted the job all season long and I think there were ups and downs, but you know lately I’m playing pretty good and I’m confident about my game,” said Neuvirth, who is 23-11-4 with a .916 save percentage and 2.47 goals against average this season. “I think my best time is going to be in the playoffs but you never know, and we’ve still got nine games left. It’s open. [Semyon Varlamov’s] coming back. We’ve got three goalies and only one net, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Washington had not faced New Jersey since trap-scheme mastermind Jacques Lemaire took over as coach in late December. The Capitals were quickly reintroduced to the methodical game that focuses on preventing teams from making their way through the neutral zone. They also rapidly learned how desperate the Devils, who have been one of the hottest teams in the league since January, were for a win to keep their playoff chances alive.
In the first period, the Devils outshot Washington by a staggering 12-2. But Neuvirth was sharp from the beginning, regardless of the direction, type or suddenness of the shot.
“Just in the first 10 minutes holding us in there, it seemed like he might have been the only one that was into the game right away, and it’s a good thing he was,” said forward Mike Knuble, who had two goals and an assist. “He took the loss the other day in Detroit, but he played a strong game and he responded. He deserves most of the credit tonight and held us in tonight. They could have buried us early, and they didn’t because of Mike.”
Six minutes 10 seconds into the contest, Neuvirth received some help from his teammates when the Capitals took their second and final shot of the opening period. Brodeur, who stopped nine of Washington’s 12 shots on the game, couldn’t cleanly glove a floating shot by Jeff Schultz and the puck bounced off his mitt and into the net to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead.
Washington’s advantage on the scoreboard only intensified New Jersey’s fury to try to tie the score. The Capitals didn’t register another shot on goal for 21:44 after Schultz’s marker as the Devils pummeled Neuvirth with point-blank shots and one-timers including a bevy of chances by star winger Ilya Kovalchuk.
“I think his confidence is up there,” Boudreau said of Neuvirth. “He knows he’s a good goaltender; I think this is additional. He just beared down and I thought it was going to be tough to get one by him once he made a couple. It was back-to-back-to-back saves in the second period.”
With just more than four minutes remaining in the second period, the Capitals capitalized on what had become a rare chance against Brodeur. John Carlson pulled up as he dropped below the faceoff circles in the offensive zone to fake a shot. Instead of firing, Carlson fed the puck to the crease where Knuble stood waiting to tap in the puck for a 2-0 lead.
On the ensuing shift, Kovalchuk had a superb chance but rang it off the post and Neuvirth was able to cover the puck. By the end of the second period, New Jersey held a 20-8 lead in shots.
Knuble scored his second goal of the game in the third period on a shot off a hard yet precise cross-ice pass by Alex Ovechkin. Not to be outdone, Neuvirth made a few more stellar stops including a save against Kovalchuk on a breakaway with about three minutes remaining.
“He was pretty good,” Boudreau said. “You could tell he wanted it. I think he was upset with the third goal he let in for the goal in Detroit [Wednesday] and he’s a competitor. Let’s face it, early on he was the difference, probably the whole game he was the difference.”