- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2011

Michal Neuvirth knew he was struggling, though the 23-year-old Washington Capitals goaltender didn’t think he was as bad as his numbers. He went into Saturday night with a 3.81 goals-against average and .868 save percentage, statistics that are eye-opening given his success last season.

“I’m feeling good,” Neuvirth said Friday. “It’s been pretty tough for me, but I’m battling and practicing hard.”

With Tomas Vokoun starting the first two games under new coach Dale Hunter, Neuvirth hadn’t gotten a chance to show himself in game action in over a week. That changed Saturday night when he backstopped the Caps to a 3-2 overtime victory over the Ottawa Senators.

Neuvirth made 32 saves on 34 shots to pick up his first win since Nov. 4. Starts haven’t come with abundance for Neuvirth, but he’s adjusting.

“It’s not easy when you’re not playing very often. But it is what it is,” he said. “I just got to focus on my game. I’m feeling good in practices; I’m glad I show it in the game.”

Neuvirth’s first look at the Caps’ defensive system with Hunter was a good one. Vokoun mentioned how it makes games more predictable, and his partner in net also talked positively about how teammates managed to make life easy on him.

“They had a lot of shots early in the game, but I thought we kept them from the outside,” Neuvirth said. “They didn’t have a lot of scoring chances, but I think we did a good job.”

That’s a stark contrast from games such as Nov. 17 in Winnipeg when Brooks Laich said he and the Caps hung Neuvirth out to dry. There weren’t those kinds of lapses against the Senators.

While the Caps did give up plenty of shots, there was a focus on clamping down on quality opportunities.

“We’d probably like to limit the shots a little bit. I don’t know how many of [34] shots we gave up, how many were great chances,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “But there’s always a chance they’ll go in.”

Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson broke through with a shot through traffic to put one in, and a scramble in front tied the score late. Neither one could be called a soft goal.

But when the Senators tied it late on Milan Michalek’s goal, Neuvirth couldn’t help but think — at least “a little bit” — that here the Caps go again with not closing the deal.

“That’s hockey. I was just trying to put that goal behind me,” Neuvirth said. “I bounce right back and I feel good.”

Neuvirth had success even as it looked like he was fighting the puck at times, especially early. But he came up big when necessary.

“He played real well,” Hunter said. “He didn’t give up many rebounds; he smothered a lot of rebounds. A lot of traffic shots — they got a lot of ‘D’ that can really shoot on that team, and they have traffic in front. So he had to be sharp.”