Thursday, June 13, 2013

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- Goalies: Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth

"I took the two most expensive aspirins in history."
-- Wally Pipp, after being replaced by Lou Gehrig in the lineup due to a headache.

In the span of three seasons from 2008-2009 through 2010-2011, Michal Neuvirth won two Calder Cup championships with the Hershey Bears in the AHL and became the number one goaltender for the Washington Capitals, supplanting Semyon Varlamov in that role.

In 2013 Michal Neuvirth played in 13 games.

The arc of Neuvirth’s development might have suggested that by now he would be firmly entrenched as the Caps number one netminder, a technician who could be a steadying, consistent performer in net over the long haul and who seemed to rise to the occasion in big games.

However, in 2011-2012 the Caps saw an opportunity to add a solid veteran presence in goal on a cheap contract and signed Tomas Vokoun.  Then Vokoun got hurt, and it seemed Neuvirth would get his shot to reclaim the number one job.  But then Neuvirth suffered a knee (correction: hip flexor, as noted by a reader) injury in a late-season game against the Florida Panthers, clearing the way for Braden Holtby to take over as the number one goalie.  Holtby sparkled in the playoffs, and Neuvirth has been chained to the number two job ever since.

Even this season, when Neuvirth had a chance to create a goalie controversy after Holtby stumbled out of the gate, he could not grab the job for his own, going 1-4-1, 3.04, .889 in appearing in seven of nine games from January 24th through February 7th.  Illness and Holtby’s improving play as the season wore on conspired to staple Neuvirth to the bench and limit him to only six appearances over the Caps’ last 37 games.

Neuvirth was better late in games than early.  His save percentage in the first period of games (.904) and that in the second period of games (.897) was mediocre.  However, his save percentage in the third period (.937) was excellent.  It was even better later in the season.  In his last eight appearances his save percentage in the third period of games was .963 (he did not last into the third period of one of those games, a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh on February 7th in which he allowed two goals on 11 shots in less than 33 minutes).

His problem, though, was getting behind the eight ball early.  In nine of 12 first periods in which he played (he came on in relief in the second period of one other appearance) he allowed goals, despite what was not a heavy shot load (9.5 shots per period).

Odd Neuvirth Statistic… “Seven.”  As in the “seventh day.”  Neuvirth was 2-0-0, 2.02, .923 on Sunday, 0-5-1, 2.69, .907 on the other days of the week.

Game to Remember… April 25th vs. Ottawa.  It is perhaps odd that a game to remember would have ended in a loss.  But it was Neuvirth who kept the Caps in the game.  Through two periods at Verizon Center, Neuvirth allowed only a tip-in goal by Jakob Silfverberg on the 16 shots he faced.  The Caps tied the game in the third on a goal by Alex Ovechkin, but it was all the Caps could muster.  Meanwhile, at the other end, Neuvirth stopped all 23 shots – yes, 23 shots – he faced in the period to get the Caps to overtime.  It was all Neuvirth could do, though.  With Mike Ribeiro taking a roughing penalty at the end of regulation that carried over into the extra session, Ottawa took advantage of the 4-on-3 power play.  Sergei Gonchar ended it at the 47 second mark with a slap shot through a screen and past Neuvirth.  All in all, Neuvirth made 39 saves on 41 shots, both highs for him for the season.

Game to Forget… January 24th vs. Montreal.  Michal Neuvirth had good success against Montreal in his career, going 4-1-0, 1.82, .939 with one shutout against the Canadiens.  He did not add another successful chapter to this part of his resume in his first appearance of the season.  He was fine in the first period, stopping all nine shots he faced.  The second period, though, was something of a meltdown.  It was not entirely his fault, the Caps wearing a path to the penalty box, but neither was he the best penalty killer, as goalies often have to be.  Montreal scored three goals – two of them on the power play – in a span of 5:52, then added another with just 1:39 left in the middle frame to take a 4-0 lead to end the competitive portion of the evening in a 4-1 Caps loss.

Post Season... Neuvirth saw no ice time in the opening round series loss to the New York Rangers, his second straight post season of having seen no action after doing post-season duty in every season dating back to his 2003-2004 season with HC Sparta Praha U17 in Czech Republic at age 15.

In the end…

When Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado in July 2011, the path seemed clear at last for Michal Neuvirth to assume the responsibilities of number one goaltender for the Caps on a permanent basis.  He served a successful apprenticeship, and while his NHL numbers were not spectacular, he was still young and had upside yet to be tapped.  Or so the thinking might have been.  But then the Caps saw a bargain for an established number one goalie – Tomas Vokoun – and pounced, relegating Neuvirth to backup status.  He has not yet emerged from that shadow, one that is now cast by Braden Holtby. That one is a longer shadow.  Holtby has been solid in both regular and post-seasons, carrying himself and performing like a number one goalie who will not be relinquishing that spot soon.  Neuvirth might not get another chance to serve as a number one goaltender unless he is moved to another organization.  However, in late April he signed a two-year, $5.0 million deal with the Caps, a contract that has a $650,000 larger cap hit than the new two-year deal that Holtby signed in February. 

If there is one thing history teaches, though, it is that today’s goaltending depth is tomorrow’s desperate need.  Caps fans might remember that in 1994-1995 the Caps dressed Jim Carey, Byron Dafoe, and Olaf Kolzig in goal, all drafted by the Caps.  Two seasons later, Dafoe was gone, Carey melted down, and Kolzig (perhaps third on that depth chart in 1994-1995) was the number one goalie.  That is, in a sense, the way Holtby progressed, Semyon Varlamov leaving followed by Holtby's passing of Neuvirth on the depth chart.  Neuvirth is not just insurance in that respect.  He might yet be the number one goalie for this team, even if it hardly looks that way at the moment.

Grade: C

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America