While numerous lineup possibilities have been considered and analyzed in preparation for the Washington Capitals’ 2011-12 regular season opener, there was never much question about which goaltender would be in net against the Carolina Hurricanes.
On Friday, though, highly touted free agent signee Tomas Vokoun dropped a bombshell when asked if he was nervous about the first game of the year.
“No, I’m not really nervous because I’m not playing,” Vokoun said after practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Whatever, you know. Supposedly I’m going to play the next game.”
Instead, second-year netminder Michal Neuvirth will be the one defending the goal in front of the home Verizon Center crowd when the season begins Saturday night.
Coach Bruce Boudreau had said repeatedly this offseason that the 35-year-old Vokoun deserved the respect of being slotted as the No. 1 goaltender on the depth chart, leading to the assumption that the 12-year NHL veteran would be given the nod under the spotlight of a season opener.
Asked why he opted to go with 23-year-old Neuvirth, Boudreau was noticeably caught off guard.
“I didn’t know that was public knowledge,” Boudreau said. “Well, I’m not ready to comment on that.”
Washington’s four other key offseason acquisitions are expected to play Saturday, as is captain Alex Ovechkin, who returned to town Friday after attending his uncle’s funeral in Moscow. Vokoun, though, will have to wait at least two days to make his Capitals debut.
The Czech netminder signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with Washington on July 2 when his value on the free agent market dropped, and Boudreau quickly named him the team’s top goaltender. Less than a week ago, Boudreau reinforced that idea.
“Tomas is number one, but we’ve got a number one-A,” Boudreau said following Sunday’s preseason victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. “Training camp, you’ve got guys that come in that deserve the respect to be where they were, and Tomas has earned that. Michal’s been very good. . . . Michal’s going to play a lot of hockey this year, but I don’t think you look at that.”
While Boudreau wouldn’t elaborate on the decision to sit Vokoun, it could correlate with preseason performance. Each goaltender appeared in three exhibition games. Vokoun finished 1-2-0 with a .870 save percentage and 3.26 goals against average while Neuvirth went 2-1-0 with a .949 save percentage and 1.34 goals against average.
“They told me I showed up in great shape,” said Neuvirth, who told reporters he was informed of the decision after practice Friday. “I had a great training camp, I had great preseason games and everything went good, and that’s probably why I get the call.”
Last season, Neuvirth established himself as the Capitals’ top option in net with a 27-12-4 record in the regular season with a .914 save percentage and 2.45 goals against average, beating out Semyon Varlamov to become the team’s playoff starter. Since he returned to Washington at the start of September, Neuvirth has made it clear he intends to challenge Vokoun, his boyhood idol, for playing time. Neuvirth said he isn’t going to get too excited over earning the first start of the season, though.
“No, it’s still only one game,” Neuvirth said. “Gonna stay in net and try my best and help my team win a hockey game [Saturday], and that’s all.”
Vokoun, whose out-of-town family is visiting Washington and showed up for Friday’s practice, didn’t appear too distressed about not starting in the opener. However, his agent, Allan Walsh, told the Washington Times on Friday night that the decision to start Neuvirth can be “perceived as a slap in the face.” Walsh added that Vokoun was “very disappointed.”
Vokoun said the team’s plan is for him to start on Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. After spending so many years toiling with teams in the lower half of the standings, this season represents an opportunity for Vokoun to show the hockey world what he can do with a contender. And it’s something he’s eager to demonstrate.
“You have always something to prove. There will always be people saying — no matter who you are — stuff about you you might not like, right or wrong,” Vokoun said. “In this league, I think everybody who steps on the ice, or on the active roster, has always something to prove. That doesn’t change.”