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Pro Hockey: Neuvirth may be Capitals’ saving grace

GOALTENDER COMES OFF THE BENCH TO GIVE

STRUGGLING TEAM A SIGNIFICANT BOOST

BY ZAC BOYER

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

ARLINGTON—Dave Prior feared how Michal Neuvirth would behave when he returned stateside from his native Czech Republic at the end of the NHL lockout.

Prior, the Washington Capitals’ goaltenders coach, knows the differences between the international game and the one played in North America. So he figured Neuvirth had to have picked up some bad habits. When the team had its first official workout, Prior realized Neuvirth had indeed developed what he later termed a “European hangover.”

    CAPITALS at SENATORS

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Neuvirth was sitting too far back in the crease, restricting his activity. He was also struggling to corral rebounds, which can be a goaltender’s Achilles’ heel.

Prior was eager to break that behavior, but with the Capitals thrust into a season two weeks after terms were reached on a new collective bargaining agreement, there would be no preseason in which to do so.

Instead, Neuvirth has had to ease his way back into play. He’s done a magnificent job during the Capitals’ last three games and will look to do so for a fourth time when he earns the start at Ottawa Tuesday night.

“I’m feeling good right now and Dave is happy with [the way] I play so far, and I want to keep that up,” Neuvirth said.

The 24-year-old played exceptionally well in the Capitals’ first victory of the season Sunday, a 3–2 win over Buffalo at Verizon Center.

He stopped 22 of 24 shots, allowing goals on an odd-man rush following a first period turnover in the neutral zone and on a rebound late in the third, but otherwise displayed swift glovework and a steady anticipation of the play in front of him.

The performance followed one in which he helped Washington push New Jersey, the defending Eastern Conference champions, into overtime on the road by stopping 32 of 35 shots.

“He’s given us confidence in front of him,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “He’s played well here the past couple of years, and he’s battling hard and fighting hard for that solidified No. 1.”

Neuvirth hadn’t played a hockey game in front of a home crowd in over six years when he returned in late September to play for Sparta Praha, one of the most successful teams in the top-level Extraliga. He was groomed in the team’s youth academy from 2003–06 before being drafted by the Capitals, then began playing junior hockey in Canada as he made his way through the team’s system.

Neuvirth played in 24 games in his return to Prague, posting an 11–13 record with one shutout, a 2.46 goals against average and a .927 save percentage. It kept him crisp during the 113 days without organized NHL hockey, but not to a point where he was necessarily ready for the world’s top players.

“It was a good experience for me,” Neuvirth said. “I never played pro hockey back home so it was a good opportunity for me. I played a lot of games and I felt good and I played good over there and that gave me good confidence.”

Braden Holtby, assumed to be the Capitals’ top goaltender entering the season after a remarkable run in the playoffs in April and May, allowed 10 goals over Washington’s first two games.

Because of the condensed schedule, head coach Adam Oates turned to Neuvirth to start against Montreal on Thursday. Though Neuvirth allowed four goals, Oates stuck by him again Friday at New Jersey—and despite the overtime loss, Neuvirth rewarded his coach’s decision.

“It’s a pretty good start,” Oates said. “He looks very sharp at the start of the game. And a team, you get a pulse from your goalie, right? You’re on the bench, you’re watching and the saves look solid and they don’t look like ‘Uh, oh!’ And that’s a good feeling for your team.”

Oates has maintained that he’ll likely fluctuate between the goaltenders for a good portion of the season, if only because the physical demands of the schedule will force him to do so. But Neuvirth, who owns a 1.55 GAA, a .945 save percentage and a 4–0 mark in four career starts against the Senators, wants to ensure most of the starts are his.

“The third game [Sunday], was what it should be like when your team plays well in front of you, you’re not called upon to play as big a role in contributing to the win,” Prior said. “He did his part when he was called upon—and did it well.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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