WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Steadiness hasn’t often been a trait used to describe the Washington Capitals’ goaltenders this month. But Thursday night, Michal Neuvirth put on the type of performance the Capitals have often lacked.
Making his first start since Dec. 5, Neuvirth was unflappable as he made 26 saves to lead the Capitals to a 1-0 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. With each puck he smothered in his fire-engine red pads and glove, Neuvirth showed the poise and confidence he often displayed a season ago as a rookie.
And after more than 58 scoreless minutes, Alex Ovechkin finally put a puck past Ondrej Pavelec (27 saves) with 74 seconds remaining to break the deadlock and ensure Neuvirth would get a win for his efforts. Washington (16-13-1) improved to 4-4 under Coach Dale Hunter.
“I think when goalie makes unbelievable save, it give you a little breath, like, ‘He’s on fire right now, he keep us in the game,’ ” Ovechkin said of feeling additional pressure to help his young teammate earn a win. “Finally [the puck] go through, actually didn’t see the puck, I see only light. It was important goal for the team and I’m happy I scored it.”
The victory marked Neuvirth’s first shutout of the 2011-12 season and the Capitals’ second of the year, with the previous one coming 25 games ago when Tomas Vokoun held Florida scoreless on Oct. 18.
The Capitals knew they would need a strong start to match Winnipeg (14-13-4). The Jets entered the contest on a five-game winning streak at home and were 10-4-0 there this season.
But the Jets controlled the opening 20 minutes and held a 14-7 edge in shots by the intermission by flinging pucks toward the net from all angles and locations.
As the Capitals struggled to escape their zone, Neuvirth bailed them out with sharp stops and looked fresh in the building where he won a Calder Cup as a member of the AHL’s Hershey Bears in 2009.
“I thought we got a little outplayed in the first but after that I think we outplayed them. I think their only big scoring chances were on the power play,” Neuvirth said. “They had a lot of shots early and it’s always nice, after couple saves I settled down. It was a great team effort and a huge two points for us.”
Throughout the first, Neuvirth turned away one-timers, shots through traffic and wristers from point-blank range while demonstrating the conservation of movement he has become known for. Regardless of the extended time the Jets spent in the offensive zone, and how frequently they bulldozed their way into the crease, Neuvirth made saves look easy.
After escaping the first period without giving up a goal, the Capitals came out with more life at the start of the second, buoyed by their netminder’s performance.
“We’re trying to get one, that’s for sure. We’re doing all we can to get some goals for him and when you see an effort like that you want to reward the kid with a good, big win,” said Jason Chimera, whose four shots on Thursday tied for the team lead with Karl Alzner.
Perhaps Washington’s best scoring chance in the first half of the contest came when the team was shorthanded in the second period.
Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom broke free on a two-on-one rush. Rather than shoot the puck, though, Knuble tried to pass to the Swedish center and the pass was knocked away by Dustin Byfuglien.
For the Capitals, who were struggling to generate sustained offensive pressure, it was one of a handful of opportunities that fizzled without a finishing touch.
On the ensuing rush up ice, the Jets nearly cracked the stalemate.
Evander Kane carried the puck into the zone along the right wing boards and passed to Blake Wheeler, who found an unguarded Bryan Little making his way through the left faceoff circle. Little’s shot came with Neuvirth sprawled out on the ice as he tried to move across the crease. But Dennis Wideman lunged in front of the cage and wound up deflecting the puck away with his stick.
As the contest wore on, Washington gained more momentum and outshot the Jets 17-12 in the final 40 minutes.
Sticking to the system and taking chances when they came, not jumping forward for any unnecessary risk, paid off in the waning minutes.
The Jets’ Pavelec, who grew up facing Neuvirth in the Czech Republic, was equally composed but something had to give — eventually.
With less than two minutes left, Backstrom forced a turnover by Jets captain Andrew Ladd in the neutral zone near the offensive blue line. Backstrom drew opposing players toward him before passing to Marcus Johansson.
The second-year center found himself on a two-on-two with Ovechkin. The pair crossed paths in the offensive zone and Johansson left the puck for the star left wing along the edge of the right faceoff circle; and that was where Ovechkin shot the winner past Pavelec.
“It was a tight game,” Hunter said. “In the third period I thought we were skating really well, thought we played more in their end. Michal kept us in the game early, gave us some confidence and I thought we played well in the third.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a 16th consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. . . . Matt Hendricks sat out a fourth straight contest with a right knee injury.