Michal Neuvirth is quick to point out that he’s never been anything close to a backup goaltender at any level of his career, so his sophomore season was bound to require some adjustment.
But after a rough 21 / 2 months that saw him held back by injury and then relegated to infrequent playing time, Neuvirth has earned his way back into the Washington Capitals’ net and is expected to make a fourth consecutive start on Friday in New Jersey.
After veteran Tomas Vokoun was pulled for the third time this season in a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 13, Neuvirth has started the last three games and stopped 72 of 75 shots for a .960 save percentage. The stretch has boosted the 23-year-old’s confidence, but in order to continue receiving the opportunities, he must continue to succeed.
“We just talk every day about it,” Coach Dale Hunter said when asked about his approach to determining a starting goaltender. “It’s an on-going process; they’ve got to practice and play well in practice just like our shooters do. If you don’t have a good practice you’re not going to do it in a game. Both of them have been practicing hard and right now Michal’s getting rewarded for it.”
Neuvirth’s overall statistics this season are far below his usual marks; he has a .893 save percentage, 3.09 goals against average and a 5-6-1 record. But since Hunter took over on Nov. 28, the second-year goaltender is 3-3 with a .927 save percentage (11 goals on 151 shots).
“Obviously when you’re playing more you feel more comfortable,” Neuvirth said. “I would love to play every game but we have Tomas, he’s got so much experience and I’m learning that if I don’t play, I’ve got to work just as hard in practice.”
Neuvirth wasn’t able to get off to a good start in the regular season because of the setback he suffered when a bruised heel held him out of game action for three weeks, goaltending coach Dave Prior said.
“Michal didn’t really get his game all back together until recently,” Prior said. “I think it’s just easier when goaltender s play regularly to get your game right, right away in the next game. I think that’s contributed more than anything.”
For Neuvirth, the continuity offered by successive starts is crucial. Neuvirth recorded his first shutout of the season in a 1-0 win against Winnipeg on Dec. 15 and received the start the next game in Colorado. He would allow a fluky goal early in the first period against the Avalanche when the puck fluttered up in the air and he lost sight of it.
Neuvirth responded with a solid game the rest of the way, however, and when Hunter gave him another start despite the loss, it offered another endorsement for his confidence.
Hunter “believes in me,” Neuvirth said. “We talked about that goal [in Colorado] I told him what happened and he understood. Crazy bounces happen all the time, he told me he liked the way I bounced back and I battled hard the whole game and I got another chance to start. Last game [a 4-1 win against Nashville] was a great team effort and I felt great the whole 60 minutes.”
Throughout Washington’s struggles this year, neither Neuvirth nor 35-year-old Vokoun has found consistency. Soft goals unraveled stretches of strong play for the Capitals, and so having either one of the netminders able to regain his swagger is a welcome development.
“We need to have that comfort factor and that confidence in our goalie that he’s going to make timely saves and big saves,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “When he is making those saves, we can just be at ease that if we give up a shot he’s going to be there to make a save for us. Sometimes breakdowns do happen, and just having that confidence that he has the ability to make that timely save is very important.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green skated for a fourth consecutive day Thursday but he is expected to miss a 19th straight game with a strained right groin muscle.