By Adam Vingan
On July 1, the Washington Capitals traded goaltender Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a 2012 first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round draft pick in either 2012 or 2013. The trade left Michal Neuvirth as the anointed No. 1 goaltender, a position that he wrangled from Varlamov last season while the oft-injured Russian languished on the shelf. Just 24 hours later, however, that plan changed when the Caps signed veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal for only $1.5 million. Head coach Bruce Boudreau essentially named Vokoun the No. 1 goaltender by default and Neuvirth seemingly found himself in the same position he did the summer before: in a fight to earn the starting position.
Yet, Neuvirth’s play during the preseason, which concluded Sunday with a 4-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, has proved that he will not go quietly, even if he is relegated to the back-up position at the start of the season. In three preseason starts, Neuvirth only allowed four goals, made 63 saves on 67 shots and displayed the same flashes of brilliance that earned him a 27-12-4 record, 2.45 GAA and .914 SV% last season and NHL Rookie of the Month honors last October.
“I was a little nervous, but everything has been good,” Neuvirth said after the game Sunday, admitting that his nerves came from not practicing for a few days while recovering from a minor injury. “I played pretty good the whole game.”
Neuvirth started last season as the No. 1 goaltender partially because Varlamov was not ready to compete. Minus a string from late November to late January, Neuvirth saw more action than Varlamov because he proved himself worthy. Even though the Tampa Bay Lightning ultimately swept the Caps out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neuvirth was the best player on the ice during the postseason (4-5-0, 2.34 GAA, .912 SV%) and Varlamov became an afterthought, which led to his eventual departure.
Though the situation might seem the same, the biggest difference between Neuvirth working with Varlamov and Vokoun is that the latter will teach Neuvirth how to be a better player. Neuvirth said during last Saturday’s Caps Convention that he idolized his fellow Czech goaltender growing up and that respect will go a long way in his development. That is not to say that Neuvirth can’t teach Vokoun something; though Vokoun has played in 562 more regular seasons games than Neuvirth, he has only two more games worth of playoff experience.
Of course, if a goaltender is not a starter, he’s a back-up, but Boudreau does not place such a distinction on Neuvirth.
“Tomas is No. 1, but we have a No. 1A,” Boudreau said. “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. It really gives you a lot of cause to say that Michal’s ready. He was great again tonight. The three preseason games, he’s given up four goals and I don’t think he could have done anything on any of the four goals. He’s ready to play.”
Next Saturday (barring any unforeseen circumstances), Vokoun will be in goal for the Caps in their regular season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes. Neuvirth will take his seat at the end of the bench and watch intently. That seat, however, won’t be warm for very long.
“Bruce announced Tomas as the No. 1 and it doesn’t really bother me,” Neuvirth said. “I am just going to wake up tomorrow and work hard. If I get the call, I will be ready.”