Every successful hockey club needs a steady presence between the pipes and the Washington Capitals may have found theirs after a stellar season from the unflappable Michal Neuvirth.
He doesn’t possess the charisma of rising star Braden Holtby nor the high ceiling of Semyon Varlamov, but Neuvirth quietly put together a solid season as the Capitals top option in goal. He was durable, proficient and capable of handling the pressure that comes with being the number one goalie on a perennial contender.
Goaltending was the biggest concern for Washington coming into the year, but Neuvirth swiftly quelled any concerns, winning rookie of the month in October and claiming the starting goalie job down the stretch.
Things didn’t go as planned for the Caps this postseason, but it didn’t stop Neuvirth from emerging as the goalie of the future. He allowed just eight goals in five first round games against the Rangers and given the circumstances, did an admirable job against the Lightning in round two.
Watching Neuvirth conduct himself on and off the ice throughout the playoffs, I saw a player who relished the competition each and every night. He rarely looked uncomfortable in his crease and his focus was that of a seasoned veteran.
As bland as he could be in postgame interviews — at one point while sitting next to Alex Ovechkin at the podium, he started absent-mindedly blowing into his microphone while Ovechkin was answering a question — I got the sense he never let the moment become bigger than the overarching goal. His demeanor made you wonder “does this kid even have a heartbeat?”
One instance in particular left me convinced Neuvirth has the mettle to be a successful NHL goalie.
During a stoppage in Game Three of the first round at Madison Square Garden, Brandon Prust hooked Neuvirth as he skated by. The Caps goalie hardly took notice. It was a subtle incident, but one of many attempts by New York to rattle the young goalie.
But throughout the series, Neuvirth displayed an ability to shut out his surroundings, buckle down and win. His positioning was superb; his concentration sublime. He out-dueled world-class goalie Henrik Lundqvist and finished the first round as the top-ranked netminder in the playoffs.
The second round wasn’t nearly as kind.
Though Neuvirth dropped his first ever North American playoff series against Tampa Bay, he ensured the Capitals remained within striking difference in every game. Truth be told, he was far from a liability in a series where few Capitals stepped up.
Defensive breakdowns led to numerous odd man rushes in every game and Tampa’s speed proved to be a difference maker, outworking an undermanned blue line. With the slow-footed duo of Jeff Schultz and Scott Hannan, injuries to Mike Green and Dennis Wideman and the overworked pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson backing him up, Neuvirth failed to match his outstanding round one performance.
However, given the careless play in both the neutral and defensive zones it’s hard to fault Neuvirth for blowing a third period lead in Game Three or giving up an overtime goal to Vinny Lecavalier in Game Two.
With the Capitals leading 3-2 in Game Three, Eric Fehr failed to clear the puck out of the defensive zone and Steven Stamkos blew a shot over Neuvirth’s shoulder putting Washington of their heels. 24 seconds later on a two-on-one opportunity, Nate Thompson threw a pass into the crease and the puck went in off of Ryan Malone’s skate.
Neuvirth was run over by Malone and Carlson on the second goal, leaving him with little chance to make the save.
The Caps didn’t score again, losing the game and ultimately a chance at coming back to beat Tampa.
The sequence summed up the entire series as the 23-year old netminder was left out to dry over and over again. The 15 goals he allowed in the four games were as much a result of the inefficient play in front of him rather than his own valiant efforts.
He was far from perfect, but Neuvirth displayed the necessary composure in an elite goaltender while backstopping a dramatic come-from-behind, double overtime victory over the Rangers. He recorded his first postseason shutout in his second career playoff game and also saved the Capitals from being completely blown out of the building in the first three games of their showdown with the Lightning.
Despite the disappointing finish, Neuvirth provided one of the few bright spots for Caps fans this year. With Mike Green sidelined, Nicklas Backstrom in a season-long slump and the power play in shambles, Neuvirth seized control of the net down the stretch and started 48 games, winning 27 of them.
During the regular season, the Capitals didn’t lose a game in regulation when scoring three or more goals. Yes, the Capitals defensive corps was better this season and the team as a whole played a more responsible style, but the stat can also be attributed to the best goaltending the Caps have received in years.
Entering the season, the major concern was whether the Caps had a franchise goalie between Varlamov and Neuvirth. The pressure was on one or both of these inexperienced goalies to play at a high level and Neuvirth did just that against top competition all season long.