Michal Neuvirth was the man.
There was little doubt going in to last year's playoffs that he was Washington's starting goaltender. Even when the Capitals went down 2-0 and 3-0 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, coach Bruce Boudreau stuck with Neuvirth instead of switching to Semyon Varlamov.
The signing of veteran Tomas Vokoun knocked Neuvirth off his starting perch. But the 23-year-old isn't approaching life and hockey any differently.
"Actually, it doesn't affect me at all," he said. "I'm just focusing on myself right now and trying to get in the best shape possible."
But that's exactly what the Caps want out of Neuvirth: Business as usual. Because advancing as a great NHL goaltender means more than being pushed by a guy such as Vokoun.
To goaltending coach Dave Prior, the idea of competition among netminders is misunderstood by media members, fans and even other hockey people.
"I don't think it's harmful for goaltenders, but if a goaltender needs to compete with somebody to be as good as he can be, I don't think he's a very good goaltender," Prior said. "I want our goaltenders to be self-motivated."
That's no problem for Neuvirth, who made his second start of the preseason Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center.
Neuvirth, who went 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average last year, believes in himself - especially given what he accomplished when healthy in 2010-11.
"My goal is to be No. 1 goalie, and I proved last year I can be the guy," Neuvirth said. "I'm pretty confident about myself and I'm ready to go."
When the Caps signed Vokoun as a free agent, Boudreau said the 35-year-old deserved the respect of being the starter. But that shouldn't stunt Neuvirth's growth.
"This is his fourth-year pro and he's on a great pace," Boudreau said. "No one can predict - you can sit there in the summer and say, 'He's going to get X amount of goals, or he's going to get X amount of starts,' and then you look at those numbers at the end of the year and anything can happen."
On July 1, general manager George McPhee spoke confidently about turning over the team's goaltending duties to Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. Prior thinks that even in that situation, Neuvirth would be at his best.
"If it's Varly, if it's Vokoun, if that's what it takes to motivate Michal Neuvirth to give us his best, I'd go up and ask George to trade him tomorrow," Prior said. "I think it's overplayed — the competition in that particular position more than any other.
"A goaltender plays for his teammates, wants to be as good as any goalie in the league. If there's competition, it's more to be the best in the league, because if you're just better than the guy you're sitting beside, that mightn't be good enough anyways."
And while Neuvirth is just 23, the sight of him in net for the Caps is nothing new. Vokoun looks like the man for now, but Boudreau has seen Neuvirth grow "from a boy to a man."
"I think he's really matured tremendously from his first camp," the coach said. "You watch guys grow up in front of your eyes, and Michal's one of those guys."
NOTE: Center Brooks Laich didn't practice Monday after leaving the ice early Sunday. Boudreau said Laich probably would be n the ice Tuesday.
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