In the photo, they’re holding a trophy together and smiling, full beards on baby faces. Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth are in Hershey Bears jerseys, hoisting the Calder Cup, the Washington Capitals’ goaltenders of the future.
“I just remember thinking that we’re going to be looking good here for the next few years with these two guys,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
There ultimately wasn’t room in the Capitals organization for both of them. Just two years apart, Holtby and Neuvirth competed for the same job off and on for parts of four seasons, weathering goalie carousels that spanned three coaches.
When Neuvirth was displeased with his playing time during the 2013-14 season, his agent asked that the Capitals trade him, and by the 2014 deadline, he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres, ending his tenure in Washington. In the past two years, Holtby has established himself with the Capitals, a Vezina Trophy favorite after a 48-win season. Neuvirth is on his third team since the trade.
They are again intertwined. Holtby will backstop a Capitals team playing for a first-round series win in Game 5 on Friday night against the Philadelphia Flyers. With his team on the brink of elimination, Neuvirth again will be opposite Holtby, the goaltender for the desperate Flyers as they attempt to pull off a historic comeback.
The story of how they ascended to this point is half of the intrigue.
“It was fun,” Alzner said of the seasons when Holtby and Neuvirth shared the crease. “There was so much promise to see there.”
There was also quiet tension. Whenever he is asked about his former goaltending partner, Holtby is always complimentary. Before the series started, he said Neuvirth “can be one of the top goalies in the league on any given night. He’s so naturally gifted.” Neuvirth recently said that he and Holtby aren’t in regular contact outside of a passing hello in the corridors of a shared arena.
With the New York Islanders last season, Neuvirth played the last 11 minutes of Game 5 against the Capitals in the first round, replacing Jaroslav Halak — whom the Capitals acquired in the deal for Neuvirth in 2014 — in the 5-1 Washington win. He started against the Capitals just once in this regular season, a 4-3 overtime win by the Flyers.
Neuvirth is getting an opportunity because Flyers goaltender Steve Mason struggled, losing the first three games and allowing 12 goals. Neuvirth was having a career season with Philadelphia and for a time took over the No. 1 job from Mason, but he has struggled to stay healthy in his career, and a lower-body injury caused him to miss the last three weeks of the regular season. Mason then helped push the Flyers to a playoff berth and initially got the postseason nod.
In Game 4 on Wednesday night, though, Neuvirth made 31 saves and allowed just one goal in a 2-1 win that extended the series at least one more game.
“Clearly, they were looking for him to be the guy to push them over and start to get some wins,” Alzner said. “Neuvy’s a guy that’s got a lot of pride and wants to prove to everybody that he’s a great goaltender, and he did that.”
Neuvirth and Holtby seemed to be connected from Holtby’s first pro season. Just 20 years old at the time, Holtby started in South Carolina with the ECHL’s Stingrays, took over the starting job in Hershey when Neuvirth was hurt, then moved over as Neuvirth returned from injury and led the Bears to their second straight Calder Cup in 2010. That’s when they posed for the picture together.
Holtby had been 25-8-2 with the Bears with a .917 save percentage and 2.32 goals against average . That summer, Holtby entered the Capitals’ development camp as the third goaltender on the depth chart behind Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, but he had already started to make an impression.
“You could see it, you know? That he was going to be great,” said Bruce Boudreau, then the Capitals coach. “When he was here as a 17-year-old or 18-year-old, after he got drafted for the summer camp, we projected him better than Varlamov and Neuvirth at that point. He just had a lot going for him, winning it in Hershey. He’s just getting better every year. Now, instead of a boy, he looks just like a young man with a lot of confidence.”
A 2008 fourth-round pick, Holtby didn’t even get a headline in The Post for his NHL debut. It was mentioned in the last three paragraphs of a story about a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Nov. 6, 2010, in which Holtby replaced Neuvirth after the latter blew a three-goal lead.
That game was the start of a homegrown goaltending circus that at various points featured Holtby, Neuvirth, Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer, with the organization seemingly never committing to one until the start of Coach Barry Trotz’s tenure.
By the end of the 2011-12 season, Coach Dale Hunter toggled between Holtby and Neuvirth, alternating based on the team’s result the previous game. Under Coach Adam Oates, Holtby had ascended to the top role by the end of the 2012-13 season, but in late April 2013, the Capitals re-signed Neuvirth to a two-year, $5 million contract, which then had him making more than Holtby. Neuvirth said in The Post that he didn’t feel like a backup.
“I feel I’m better than that, and that’s why they offer me more money than the backups in the league,” Neuvirth said then. By the end of the next season, he was traded.
“Other than [Jose] Theodore, it’s been a young group of goalies,” former Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig said before the playoffs. “Was it fair to maybe put all that on Varlamov and Neuvirth? Holts has been able to develop a few more years, and he’s had a couple years in the NHL before he was really thrust into the lineup. Who knows if Varly had stayed here and developed? But Braden for sure has answered the question and solidified the position for years to come.”