Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth was late and he didn’t know it yet. Holding up his new mask for a photographer on the first day of training camp Sunday, Neuvirth had forgotten about a post-practice meeting with goaltending coach Dave Prior and fellow netminder Braden Holtby.
“How soon?” Prior asked upon finding Neuvirth in front of his locker. “We’re waiting.”
The directive sent Neuvirth scrambling, his photo shoot over with a promise that he would “be there in a few seconds.”
This, it would seem, is how life could be all season for Washington’s two young goalies. How they deal with the daily rigors of competition will be a central story line, because new head coach Adam Oates has made it clear he needs both to produce during a compacted 48-game schedule.
“Both of them are far from proven, but I don’t want goaltenders who compete with each other,” Prior said this week. “I always say when I hear that remark from hockey people: ‘That’s what it takes for them to be good? Trade them.’
“You need to be more concerned that you’re playing the last game of the year for us this season, and winning it, than who the hell plays the first game.”
Holtby, of course, did just last spring when he grabbed hold of the starting job during the playoffs and finished with a .935 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against average. As a result, Oates hinted this week that he would likely start Saturday’s 2013 season opener against Tampa Bay.
But Holtby, 23, has just 35 NHL games to his credit, including last year’s postseason, and even he concedes his mental approach to the game remains a work in progress. As Prior pointed out this week, “Michal’s accomplished a lot more than Braden” and it was Neuvirth who would have started the playoffs in net had he not been injured in the second-to-last regular season game.
“I want to play with the same mind-set that I used in the playoffs, which was keeping it relaxed and keeping things in perspective,” said Holtby, a native of Lloydminster, Canada, who played with the AHL’s Hershey Bears during the lockout. “Even last year during the regular season, I think I got too complacent at times and too jacked up at times.”
Neuvirth, 24, also has plenty of motivation this season. The Czech native is in the final season of a two-year contract, well aware that he still must prove he can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. In four seasons with the Capitals, he has a 51-30-9 record, .909 save percentage and 2.65 goals against average, but never made more than 48 regular season appearances.
Neuvirth even went as far as calling Holtby, his backup in Hershey when the Bears won the 2010 Calder Cup, his “weakest competition” to date during an August interview with a Czech Web site. Holtby said this week Neuvirth has since apologized for the comment and their relationship is “just fine.”
“The media out here in the U.S. made it way too big and completely changed my meaning,” Neuvirth explained Wednesday. “I said Holtsy is a great goalie, but I was here with [former Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov], he was a first-rounder and he was always ahead of me. Last year I had [Tomas] Vokoun and he’s a world-class goalie. . . .
“One day I’m gonna be the No. 1 goalie. If not this team, then somewhere else.”
This is the situation Oates walks into: Two goalies with the same goal.
He says he’s hopeful any controversy “will sort itself out,” calling it a luxury to have two talented netminders entering their prime. The first-year coach will lean on Prior to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, although Prior noted that the final call would fall to Oates.
So whether they like it or not, Holtby and Neuvirth will be inextricably linked this year.
“Once you start competing with teammates, it never goes well. You start adding different things into the equation when you just have to simplify as much as you can,” Holtby said. “The way the season is, we’re both gonna be called upon. They need both of us in order to put ourselves in position for the playoffs.”