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

inferior opposition.

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.”