By Adam Vingan
Michal Neuvirth’s season started better than expected. To be frank, Neuvirth starting the season was something unexpected. Former head coach Bruce Boudreau elected to start Neuvirth in the Washington Capitals’ season opener October 8, passing over anointed No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun.
Neuvirth played a solid game that night, stopping 28 of 31 shots in a 4-3 overtime win. A heel injury derailed Neuvirth for three weeks after that and Vokoun filled in admirably, earning a 6-1-0 record with a 1.85 GAA and .940 SV%. Neuvirth did not reappear until the second period of October 29’s 7-4 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, when he relieved Vokoun after he allowed three goals on 17 shots.
After that game, Boudreau explained the reasoning behind his decision to pull Vokoun.
“My thoughts were I just didn’t think Tomas was very sharp,” Boudreau said to The Washington Post. “He played eight games in a row at a very high level. I thought the first and third goals weren’t very good. I thought it was a good a time as any, Neuvy was sharp in practice, and I thought this was as good a time as any to get him involved in the game again.”
While his numbers weren’t as good as his previous stretch, Vokoun began another roll in the following game, starting 13 of 20 games between November 1 against the Anaheim Ducks and December 13 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Head coach Dale Hunter pulled Vokoun for the first time under his watch against the Flyers after allowing four goals on 21 shots. Like he did in Vancouver, Neuvirth played well, making 11 saves on 12 shots in relief.
This time, however, the Caps didn’t go back to Vokoun in the game following his hook. Hunter elected to go with Neuvirth against the Winnipeg Jets December 15 and it was a decision that paid dividends as Neuvirth earned his first shutout of the season in a 26-save performance. Neuvirth has been in net since the third period of last Tuesday’s game (his longest consecutive stretch of games this season), stopping 140 of 151 shots, including 20 saves in a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators.
“I feel more confident with every game I play and I am very happy with my effort and the team effort tonight,” Neuvirth said. “I’m getting more comfortable every game I play and it has been nice so far.”
Since his shutout in Winnipeg, Neuvirth’s overall statistics have improved from 3.73 GAA and .875 SV% to 3.09 and .893, respectively. Under Hunter, Neuvirth has a 1.83 GAA and .927 SV%, a vast improvement from his 3.50 GAA and .867 SV% under Boudreau. While Boudreau and Hunter’s philosophies differ, one constant ideology they share is riding the hot hand.
“A hot goalie is a hot goalie,” Hunter said December 1.
Right now, Neuvirth is that hot goalie, but his confidence surge will not only affect himself, but Vokoun as well.
Competition can bring out the best in people. Vokoun hasn’t really competed against anybody lately, having played 60-plus games twice during his four seasons with the Florida Panthers. He also hasn’t played fewer than 57 games since the 2006-07 season (44 because of a hand injury).
Not only that, but if Vokoun ultimately becomes the goalie during the playoffs (assuming that the Caps do make it), it will be good for him to be rested. Goalies who dominate regular season starts, most notably Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, both of whom have started 76 regular season games with their respective teams, tend to fizzle out during the postseason. Vokoun started an average of 62 games per season with the Panthers, but Vokoun didn’t have to worry about breaking down in the playoffs because Florida never made it.
The best option for Washington at this point is to continue riding the hot hand, but setting a No. 1 goaltender is unnecessary at this time. Instead, the Caps should use the “winning by committee” approach that Boudreau contemplated with Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov during last season’s playoffs. That way, Vokoun won’t be overworked, while Neuvirth will not be overburdened too soon, considering he played a total of 57 games (regular season and playoffs) last season.
Following Tuesday’s game, Hunter was noncommittal about which goalie would start Friday against the New Jersey Devils, but recent trends dictate that Neuvirth should earn his fourth consecutive start. If that is the case, it will not only help the goalie in the crease, but also the goalie on the bench.