Michal Neuvirth never saw the shot coming. It was the morning skate Oct. 10, and the goaltender was already set to ride the bench that night against the Tampa Bay Lightning when a puck flew in from the corner and clipped his right foot awkwardly.
Just like that, Neuvirth had a bruised heel and hasn't played in a game for Washington since. Meanwhile, that night veteran Tomas Vokoun began a stretch of six straight victories that kept the Capitals unbeaten going into their trip to western Canada. But Neuvirth is back to participating in full practices, leading to the quandary of trying to work the 23-year-old back into action while continuing to ride Vokoun's stellar play.
"It's a better problem than having both goalies not playing well," coach Bruce Boudreau deadpanned.
With the Capitals set to face Edmonton on Thursday and Vancouver on Saturday, each goalie figures to play one game.
Neuvirth appears to be the choice against the Oilers, given comments Boudreau made Tuesday about getting prepared for Thursday. It doesn't matter much that Vokoun is 6-0-0 with a 1.80 goals-against average and .944 save percentage because Neuvirth will get a chance to play.
"I know Bruce believes in me," Neuvirth said. "It's a good sign he trusts me."
Boudreau has a reputation for going with the hot hand, but goaltending coach Dave Prior pointed out that this was a unique situation because Neuvirth started the winning streak by beating Carolina on opening night.
But Vokoun has been dominant when given the chance to develop a rhythm.
"I feel great. I've been the No. 1 goalie for almost 10 years," the 35-year-old said. "You're used to certain things. You feel comfortable when you play and you don't have to think about one mistake and stuff like that. It's, in a sense, easier to play that way."
His streak of starts will be interrupted as the Caps give Neuvirth the game action he hasn't had in almost three weeks. Vokoun isn't worried he'll lose his touch by missing a game.
"You know you're not going to play 82 games in a season," he said. "At least from my point of view, I'm not worried about if I'm playing next game or Michal's playing next game. I'm worried about how I'm doing on the ice ... and how I'm performing."
It's likely that no matter how Neuvirth performs in his first start back from his bruised heel that Vokoun will be thrown back into action the next game.
That's partially because Neuvirth has to ease his way back in after being out so long.
"He's got to come back and just get into the rhythm again that you sort of lose just because you don't practice for two weeks, regardless of whether you've played or not," Prior said. "That hasn't really been a problem for him in the past. I think for the coach it's just getting a comfort level when you put him in."
A hard October slate when it comes to opponents has been easy because the Caps haven't had any back-to-backs. That changes as the calendar flips to November, making this the perfect time for Boudreau to reset his goaltender rotation.
"It's good the way the schedule is working," he said. "It gives guys chances to rest."
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