“The goalie is like the [minesweeper] on the minefield. He discovers the mines and destroys them. But if you make a mistake, somebody gets blown up.” — Arturs Irbe, former NHL goalie and current Capitals goaltending coach, circa 1997
Because its players expend so much energy in their furious bursts of ice time, hockey is one of the few sports in the world where the greatest performers often aren’t directly competing at the moment the game is decided — meaning Alex Ovechkin might be in the middle of a shift change or sipping from a water bottle when the red light goes on and the arena either erupts in pandemonium or abject shock.
It follows that from now until perhaps the middle of June this continues to be about Michal Neuvirth, how long he can play so brilliantly in front of the net. As much as Ovie and many of his ridiculously talented and young teammates have to continue putting their foot on teams like the Rangers when they’re down in a series, this Stanley Cup playoff run will further be brought to you by Arturs Irbe’s between-the-pipes pupil.
Too poised in double overtime at Madison Square Garden to be frazzled by nerves, too young to grasp the burden of his franchise’s hard-luck playoff history (he turned 23 a month ago) — heck, too locked in to pay mind to the five-star reviews after surrendering to the Rangers a mere eight goals on 148 shots in five games en route to his first NHL playoff series victory — the Czech Republic’s own is in a special place at the moment.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Neuvirth said after Saturday’s pulsating Game 5, close-out win at Verizon Center, moments after he flicked a puck into the crowd, which kept chanting “NEU-VY! NEU-VY!” long after he was in the locker room. “The crowd was unbelievable tonight and I’m never going to forget about this night.”
His excitable words of broken English almost mirrored those of his position coach’s almost 17 years ago. Irbe won his first playoff series amid a madhouse with San Jose, as the Sharks knocked off the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in 1994 and took an entire region of new and uneducated hockey fans on a memorable ride.
See, before there was Neuvy there was Archie.
And now a 44-year-old who came close to winning the Stanley Cup in Carolina can impart his hope, strength and experience on a kid he has no problem living vicariously through.
“Yes, there are some similarities there, because obviously he’s the newcomer into this,” Irbe said. “It’s not like he’s played for many years and many series.”
Neither had Irbe, who was a late bloomer at 27 years old then. But he was so unflappable and consistent in goal that postseason, stoning the Red Wings, one of the most talented offensive juggernauts in NHL history, and almost shutting down the Maple Leafs in the Western Conference semifinals before the Sharks bowed out in seven games.
Like Neuvirth, Irbe was a clinician in net — less worried about making the spectacular save and more concerned with not putting himself in position to be taken advantage of on power plays and in the crucible of an overtime game. Along with smothering the puck, that kind of responsible goaltending is what Irbe works on with Neuvy today.
“When things are not happening for him, he don’t get rattled, he always find a way,” Irbe said. “His human nature is very well suited to play goaltender. He’s not a gambler – you can see guys who take a gamble; he don’t. He’s a patient guy who will wait for right solution and right things to happen.”
Irbe has helped Neuvirth continue to develop his efficiency — almost an economy of movement in front of the net, where Neuvirth doesn’t over-challenge the opponent whistling toward him at warp speed with the puck. “He doesn’t hurt his chances of making the second save because of putting himself in a bad position,” Irbe said.
“When you play that way, you instill a calmness in your teammates. A high level of efficiency also allows you to play four, five, six periods straight. If you’re not stressed or fatigued, you make fewer mistakes. What the way Neuvy plays does is it doesn’t wear the athlete out.”
Moreover, it makes people like Rangers Coach John Tortorella resort to putting in an agitator such as Sean Avery.
“If you play like that, the opposition can get, if not frustrated, they can get puzzled,” Irbe said. “‘How do I beat this guy? How do I score on him?’ ”
The term “freezing the puck” is used when a goaltender covers up every time he snags a puck in his vicinity. It’s meant to kill an attacking team’s momentum, make them reset instead of swinging wildly in front of the goal like a frenzied pack of dogs that smell blood.
It’s not always exciting hockey, but it’s winning hockey — the kind Neuvirth employed in Game 5 when the Rangers were getting desperate. “It’s a type of goaltending that involves slowing the game down,” Irbe said. “If you can smother one or two shots, they will stop shooting, give away their chances, cycle or search for something better. From goalie’s perspective, every shot not taken is possibly goal not scored.”
One of Irbe's most famous quotes in 1994 came when someone asked Irbe how he played so well in his first NHL postseason. “I was like wall,” he said, and soon signs around San Jose Arena read, “Like Wall,” and a cult hero was born.
“It’s hard to talk about it.”
“One series does not make a playoff.”
Irbe fell off the elite-goalie map several years after San Jose before a rebirth in Carolina in 2001-02, the year his remarkable play led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals. He kept playing till 2004 when he finally realized, “It’s time for next generation.”
“Very funny when I was just finishing career,” he said. “I was talking to young guy back home in Latvia. ‘Holy smokes,’ I said. ‘If I had your youth and body, not all beaten up like mine, and I could give you my knowledge and experience, what a great combination we would have.’ ”
Less than two years later, Arturs Irbe came into Michal Neuvirth’s world and started to make that player — a goalie undaunted by a chanting arena on the road, impervious to pressure in overtime, as efficient as he is excellent.