Two weeks ago, a miscommunication led Michal Neuvirth to believe he would be the Washington Capitals’ starter against the San Jose Sharks. Instead, he ended up watching prospect Braden Holtby from the bench — a decision Coach Dale Hunter explained by criticizing Neuvirth’s game.
The second-year netminder didn’t hide his frustration at the time, but in his five appearances since, Neuvirth’s consistency has been the only rebuttal he needs.
Heading into Friday’s meeting with the New Jersey Devils, Neuvirth has played in five consecutive contests, starting each outing in the Capitals’ current three-game winning streak. During that span, he has allowed eight goals on 132 shots for a .939 save percentage and 1.83 goals against average.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Neuvirth said. “Obviously there are some ups and downs, but I always bounce back. The last three games I’ve been feeling pretty good. I had a good practice today and I’m excited about [Friday].”
Neuvirth’s recent performances have illustrated his ability to adapt to the new set of circumstances, even if it hasn’t always gone exactly as he would have liked.
The 23-year-old Czech had not served as a backup in his career until this season, which has seen veteran Tomas Vokoun make 42 starts. On only four occasions has Neuvirth played in back-to-back games, and just twice has he appeared in three or more consecutive contests.
“For him it’s a bigger adjustment to not put so much emphasis on one game when you do get to play, because it’s just got to be another game,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “But for you, it might mean whether you get to play again in the next month. He’s learning to deal with that more.”
The unpredictable nature of his starts means Neuvirth can’t rely on game-by-game evaluations to keep him on track. Instead, he has had to learn to evaluate the details of his game and work to improve them in practice, Prior said, so that he can be ready at any time.
Neither Prior nor associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig spend all their time with the NHL team, tending to the organization’s prospects and scouting as well, and Neuvirth has voiced concern about not having specialized instruction on a regular basis.
“It helped a lot just having Olie or Dave here — chance to do some goalie stuff after practice and have some guys who understand about goaltenders,” Neuvirth said. “It’s nice to have someone around. I had real good relationship with [former goaltending coach Arturs Irbe] last year and it worked out. Now, I wish we had someone full time here.”
But Prior believes part of a goaltender’s development requires they endure both highs and lows on their own. “We can’t be out there holding their hand through everything,” he said.
“Any backup will tell you they sometimes feel abused, because they’re the guy who’s thrown in there for extra work. They’re the guy who gets to stand in when [captain Alex] Ovechkin or someone needs to work on his one-timers,” Prior explained. “But there’s pressure on goalies to take control of their practice and learn how to get the most out of it, how to get things right.”
While it may not be the most predictable or easiest of seasons for Neuvirth, he has found a rhythm in this stretch, backstopping the Capitals at a time when each game is magnified as the team makes its final playoff push.
Defenseman Karl Alzner, who played in front of the goaltender dating from when they won a pair of Calder Cups with the Hershey Bears, said he’s seen his friend and teammate remain steady throughout the year of changing circumstances.
“He’s got this personality where he can just brush off anything, a bad game, bad goal, criticism, he seems to be able to forget about it,” Alzner said. “He doesn’t come into the dressing room throwing stuff or yelling and screaming, no matter what happens. It’s just not his personality. He’s calm.”
Capitals note: Keith Aucoin’s wife, Maureen, gave birth Wednesday to the couple’s first child, a boy named Brayden. The center missed practice Thursday to be with his family but is expected to be back in Washington in time for Friday’s game.