Theme: “There is no education like Adversity.”
-- Benjamin Disraeli
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Michal Neuvirth’s professional career followed a tidy arc coming into the 2011-2012 season. In two seasons with the AHL Hershey Bears he saw improvements in games played (from 17 to 22), wins (nine to 15), goals-against average (2.70 to 2.24), save percentage (.913 to .918), and he had a record of 30-10, 1.98, .927, with five shutouts in backstopping the Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships.
In three seasons with the Washington Capitals, Neuvirth’s improvements continued. His games played jumped from five in a brief 2008-2009 stint with the Caps to 17 games to 48 as the number-one goalie in 2010-2011. His goals-against average dropped from .300 to 2.75 to 2.45. His save percentage improved from .892 to .914 in each of his next two seasons. He recorded all of his four career shutouts in the 2010-2011 season.
But what lingered after the 2010-2011 season was not Neuvirth’s year-to-year improvement, but the four-game sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in which his goals-against average was 3.74, and his save percentage was .867. That – and the bargain basement price that he accepted as a free agent – might have been what led Tomas Vokoun to become a Washington Capital via free agency last summer. Adding a veteran with 252 career wins and a .922 save percentage since the lockout dropped Neuvirth to second on the depth chart, either in fact or by appearance.
Neuvirth was facing his first real piece of adversity in his professional career.
But it was Neuvirth – not Vokoun – who was named as the opening night starter in October, which raised more than a few eyebrows. It would be the second time in two seasons Neuvirth would get the nod to open the season, and this one resembled the first one in some respects, not in a good way. In the 2010-2011 season opener in Atlanta, Neuvirth allowed four goals on 31 shots in a 4-3 loss to the Thrashers in Atlanta. Last October, Neuvirth held the Carolina Hurricanes to one goal on 18 shots over the first 40 minutes, but allowed two on the nine shots he faced in the third period, including one with 1:19 left in regulation to push the game to overtime. The Caps won the game, 4-3, but Neuvirth did not take full advantage of the opportunity presented to make the decision between choosing him or Vokoun as number one goaltender harder to make.
Things did not get better for Neuvirth in the games that followed, primarily because he did not play in them. He played in only nine of the next 27 games, posting a record of 2-5-1, 3.87, .869. But then Vokoun stubbed his toe, figuratively speaking, when he allowed four goals on 21 shots in 40 minutes against the Philadelphia Flyers in what would be a 5-1 Caps loss. Neuvirth got the mop-up duty in that one, then played in the next five games. Over the six appearances he was 2-2-1, 2.18, .917, and his first shutout of the season.
But he could not sustain the good fortune. In the last of those six appearances he allowed three goals on six shots in barely 11 minutes of play in a 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. He would not appear in so many as consecutive games for almost two months. In mid-February, though, Tomas Vokoun came down with the flu. Neuvirth was passed over for a start in favor of Braden Holtby, who was called up from Hershey only to allow five goals in a 5-3 loss to San Jose. Vokoun returned to the lineup, but to spotty effectiveness, including allowing two goals on seven shots in less than six minutes against the Carolina Hurricanes on February 20th. Neuvirth got the call to finish that game – a 5-0 Caps loss – starting a run in which he had his heaviest workload of the season, 17 of the next 23 games. He was 7-4-2, 2.53, .913, with two shutouts in that span of games.
It was in the last of those games, though, that disaster finally struck in an up-and-down season. With 5:39 gone in the second period, Marco Sturm went to the Washington net and fell across Neuvirth’s knee, sending Neuvirth to the bench for that game and, ultimately, for the rest of the season. From first game to last, and for most of them in-between, Neuvirth endured the most frustrating and least productive season in his still-young professional career. Here is how his year compared to last:
Odd Neuvirth Fact… Neuvirth seemed not to like the state of Florida much this season. He was 0-3-0, 4.25, .896 against Tampa Bay and Florida; 13-10-5, 2.70, .903, with three shutouts against everyone else.
Game to Remember… December 15, 2011. The Capitals were struggling. Since Thanksgiving they had fired their coach and were 3-6-0 heading to Winnipeg to face the Jets, who were 10-4-0 at home and winners of five in a row on MTS Centre ice. The Caps were sitting in 12th place in the East. The Jets came out fast, recording 14 shots on goal against Neuvirth and the Caps in the first period. Neuvirth stopped all of them. The trouble was, his counterpart at the other end of the ice – Ondrej Pavelec – stopped all the shots he faced, too. The second period ended with the same result, Neuvirth stopping all eight shots he faced, Pavelec stopping all 12 he faced. It would be Pavelec who would blink first, allowing a goal by Alex Ovechkin with 1:14 left in regulation. Neuvirth’s score sheet was clean – 26 shots faced, 26 shots turned away. It was his first shutout of the season and, for the moment at least, allowed the Caps to jump all the way to eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Of his performance, which earned him the game’s first star, Captain Alex Ovechkin said, “[In the] first period Neuvirth made some unbelievable saves and kept us in the game.” Coach Dale Hunter added, “He played the game well. We had some breakdowns defensively in our own end, and he stood tall and made the big saves.”
Game to Forget… March 2, 2012. Neuvirth and the Caps finished up February with a three-game winning streak, but they still found themselves in ninth place, one point behind the Winnipeg Jets for eight and the final spot for playoff eligibility. A win over the New Jersey Devils at home on March 2nd, and the Caps would vault ahead of the idle Jets into eighth place. Well, that didn’t happen. Neuvirth allowed five goals on the first 13 shots he faced over 35 minutes, and the Devils coasted to a 5-0 win over the Caps. It was the fourth time in his last 24 games to that point in the season that he allowed five or more goals in a game, matching his career total over his first 73 games.
Post Season… His sustaining a knee injury in the regular season’ penultimate game – one in which the Caps clinched a playoff berth – meant he would not be available to start the post-season. That was left to Braden Holtby, and we know how that turned out.
In the end… Neuvirth has been the sort of goalie who responds to a challenge. Consider his two Calder Cup championships with the Hershey Bears. In his first, in 2009, he had to face the highly regarded Cory Schneider of the Manitoba Moose in the finals. In five games he stopped 132 of 138 shots (a .957 save percentage) in outdueling the up-and-coming Vancouver prospect. In 2010, he did the same to the Los Angeles Kings’ highly thought of prospect, Jonathan Bernier, in the Calder semi-finals. In a six-game triumph over the Manchester Monarchs, Neuvirth stopped 176 of 188 shots (.936 save percentage). Then, in the Calder final, with his team having dropped the first two games at home to the Texas Stars, Neuvirth backstopped the Bears to four straight wins, including a 4-0 shutout in the Cup-clinching game.
Now he faces another challenge, this time from within. With Semyon Varlamov shipped off to Colorado on July 1st, it seemed Neuvirth would be the unchallenged number one goalie. That lasted 24 hours, as long as it took the Caps to sign Tomas Vokoun. Neuvirth never seemed to find a rhythm in his play as a result of the infrequent work that came (38 appearances in 82 games). Then, when Vokoun was through for the season after sustaining an injury in a Caps' win over Boston on March 29th, the number one job seemed Neuvirth’s once more. That lasted a week before Neuvirth was injured and his season ended (although he was available for duty starting with Game 5 of the first round series against Boston). Braden Holtby seized the opportunity and established himself as a strong competitor for the number one goaltender job for the 2012-2013 season. Having known a successful climb up the development ladder over his first few seasons in the organization, Neuvirth had to confront adversity to end last season and over much of this past season. He finds himself in need of the sort of steeliness he displayed in championship settings in the past. We will see if that makes him a better goaltender in the long run.
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America