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Rash of soft scores turning goaltending into area of concern for Capitals

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A few minutes of pressure from the Washington Capitals and no goals. Then Scott Hartnell sneaks a harmless shot between Tomas Vokoun's pads and the game changes.

That kind of scene has played out often this season for Vokoun and fellow goaltender Michal Neuvirth as soft goals have been prevalent and often the source of losses.

"Obviously not happy with the way I've been playing," Vokoun said. "It's not good enough. It's disappointing for me. I [think I've given] up as many soft goals in a month here [as I have given] up in three years. I'm trying to figure out what's wrong."

A lot has been wrong for the Capitals as they have struggled through their first 29 games. But goaltending, an area Washington expected to be a strength, has been a weakness.

"They have the most important job on the ice for us. They more or less can control the momentum of the game," said defenseman Karl Alzner, who credited the goalies for the Caps' 7-0-0 start. "Big saves from the goalie can usually fire you up, and softies can really kill you."

It's hard to quantify exactly how many "softies" Vokoun and Neuvirth have allowed, though both have admitted to giving up bad goals. Their numbers once seemed reflective of poor play in front of them - and to an extent that's still true - but Vokoun's .906 save percentage and Neuvirth's .875 have proved that it goes beyond team failures.

"It's a tough job. Everybody knows it," coach Dale Hunter said. "It could be three mistakes in front of a goalie and they're not mentioned, but it mentions where the goalie let it in at the end."

A few tip goals Tuesday night were hard to blame on the goaltenders, but Vokoun acknowledged that bad bounces happen. The troubling part appears to be the 35-year-old's lack of answers.

"Trust me, if I knew the reason I would fix it a long time ago," Vokoun said. "I know myself more than other people, and I know what I can do. How I feel out there, I just don't feel comfortable. I'm giving up goals from angle shots, wrist shots. ... I don't have that comfort level I have in past years — and it shows. Some of the goals I would put in a terrible column. They're tough goals on the team when we're not exactly the most confident right now. It's disappointing."

Vokoun had talked about how Hunter's system makes it easier on the goalies because games become more "predictable." He and Neuvirth know what to expect — and they admittedly haven't been good enough.

"I think we're playing a lot better defense lately and they're having a lot of shots from the outside," Neuvirth said. "Every game seems like we're having some tough luck. But I don't want to make any excuses; we've just got to battle hard, and I believe we can turn this around."

Neuvirth - much like Vokoun - sounded confident about the Caps rediscovering their winning ways, starting Thursday night at the Winnipeg Jets. MTS Centre was the scene of a 4-1 Caps defeat Nov. 17.

The goalies understand improved play from them would go a long way toward changing the course of this season.

"Everything could be fixed," Vokoun said. "I've just got to stay focused, work hard in practice, do my stuff and get my good feeling and everything back."

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