- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

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.”