Neuvirth looking golden in goal
Last season, Bruce Boudreau and the Washington Capitals tried to
ease Michal Neuvirth into his NHL experience by playing him against
But after Neuvirth posted back-to-back victories against
division-leading clubs, it is pretty clear the coach is now willing
to pit his third-string netminder against anyone.
“I’ve gained more confidence in him,” Boudreau said. “Last
year was just to get him ready because we knew he wasn’t going to
stay here or be here. This year it is, ‘Let’s see how good he is.
Put him in positions to see how he can play against the best teams
in the league.’ So far, he’s passing the test.”
Neuvirth has been a highly regarded prospect since he was
drafted in the second round in 2006. He solidified his standing
with an impressive performance for Hershey in the Calder Cup
playoffs last season, garnering MVP honors and helping the Bears to
the American Hockey League title.
That said, plenty of prospects have wowed at the AHL level
and then failed to transition to the NHL. Neuvirth’s recent
performance — three straight wins while allowing five goals
on 92 shots — could be proof the Czech netminder can perform
at this level.
“We’re really happy with the way he’s playing, and we thought
that he could do this,” general manager George McPhee said. “He had
a terrific year last year — won a championship and was MVP of
the playoffs. We thought if he got [NHL] games this season, he
would play the way he’s playing. He’s a very technically sound
goaltender, and giving him some consecutive games allowed him to
feel comfortable and do what he’s capable of doing.”
Added Neuvirth: “I’m still growing up. I’m still getting
better, and I hope it continues. That was a big deal for me to win
the Calder Cup, but it is really nice to finally get to play more
games than just one or two in the NHL.”
With Semyon Varlamov still battling a groin injury, Neuvirth
has started the Caps’ past three games. He helped Washington
prevail 4-2 against Edmonton on Dec. 19 to wrap up a four-game road
trip, then posted home victories against Northeast Division-leading
Buffalo (5-2 on Wednesday) and Atlantic Division power New Jersey
(4-1 on Saturday).
His continued development only strengthens the position that
Washington boasts the deepest collection of goaltender talent in
the NHL. Varlamov is one of the top young goalies in the league and
is a contender for rookie of the year honors. Neuvirth outdueled
Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, another top young talent, last year in
the Calder Cup Finals.
Then there is Braden Holtby, a 2008 pick who is 7-1-1 with
video-game numbers (1.21 goals-against average, .956 save
percentage) for the Bears.
Some organizations are devoid of a “goaltender of the
future.” Washington might have three. The Caps appear to be one of
the top contenders for the Stanley Cup, and having such depth in
goal could give McPhee some options when the trade deadline nears.
“We’re really pleased that we’ve drafted some good young
goalies,” McPhee said. “To now talk about trading them doesn’t make
any sense. We’ll take our time and develop these guys. We’ll see
what they’re capable of doing and make some decisions down the
road. It sure is nice to have young goalies in the system.”
Still, Neuvirth’s name is likely to surface in late February
amid trade speculation. A young, NHL-ready goaltender with
Neuvirth’s resume could be the key prize in a package deal that
would bring the Caps a veteran talent.
Varlamov has cemented his place in Washington’s plans, and
Jose Theodore is in the final year of his contract. If he’s not
traded, Neuvirth could join the Caps full-time next season to
compete with Varlamov.
“I really like Washington, so I don’t want to be traded or
anything,” Neuvirth said. “[Varlamov] and I have a great
relationship. He’s a great goalie, and he’s proved he is the No. 1
goalie. I still just want to make the team. … I’m still growing,
and I want to get better.”