- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

SUNRISE, Fla. — It’s a 50-50 chance for Dale Hunter to pick a goaltender and get second-guessed. Tomas Vokoun established himself as the Washington Capitals’ No. 1 guy over the past month, but it was Michal Neuvirth who got the call Wednesday night for the biggest game in a while, a road showdown with the Florida Panthers.

This was a battle for Southeast Division supremacy, and Neuvirth was far from super. Instead, he let in perhaps the worst goal of the season and another softie as the Caps fell from first place to out of the playoff picture with a 4-2 loss at BankAtlantic Center.

“It’s frustrating. This game could have been a catapult to shoot us off in the second half,” said Brooks Laich, who blamed the whole team and not Neuvirth. “Instead, we’re back chasing again. The lack of success on the road, it’s not acceptable.”

It wasn’t entirely Neuvirth’s fault, as the Caps couldn’t take advantage a rusty Panthers team that hadn’t played in over a week. Instead, the Caps struggled to tighten up on defense and were largely outhustled and outskated.

Laich’s frustration was just about boiling over afterward.

“It seems to be something different every night. Whether it’s one night the power play doesn’t score, one night the penalty kill gives one up, or a mistake, a missed assignment. We’re just not getting it done,” he said. “It has nothing to do with game plan or structure. It’s just a mistake here or there changes the game, and we’re fighting from behind. We just have to be better. I’m sick and tired of losing on the road.”

Neuvirth made 34 saves, including a bunch on an early penalty kill. But when the Caps needed him to be there to stop some routine shots, he wasn’t.

But it was clear this wasn’t the backup’s night just 33 seconds into the second period. Panthers forward Mikael Samuelsson fired a harmless shot from just over the red line that completely fooled Neuvirth. The puck went post and in, and the fluttering goal Neuvirth allowed against Colorado in December suddenly didn’t seem all so bad.

“I thought he was going to go rim it. I was cheating a little bit, and he caught me,” Neuvirth said. “I thought he was going to go rim it. I was kind of on left post, and I couldn’t get back in time.”

Neuvirth, to his credit, settled down and handled himself well as Laich continued a torrid stretch of fine play by trying the score at 11:15 of the second. But a third-period Panthers power play ended when another seemingly innocent shot from Samuelsson went through Laich’s legs and then Neuvirth’s and into the net.

It wasn’t nearly as bad as Samuelsson’s first, but it deflated the Caps, who showed bits and pieces of energy and spark in the third period. A Stephen Weiss goal late in the period that was reviewed and allowed was the final dagger. Hard to blame Neuvirth on a fluky bounce, which was a good goal when the NHL ruled Weiss did not punch it in with his glove.

But Neuvirth’s struggles hurt the Caps. This was the second time the Caps traveled to South Florida, where Vokoun played the past four seasons, and the second time the coach went with Neuvirth instead. On Dec. 5, Neuvirth allowed five goals in a 5-4 loss, but this performance was arguably worse given the quality of goals he surrendered.

“They hurt. But at the same time I think we did an OK job bouncing back, and it wasn’t like it really, really deflated us or anything,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We could do without those, but it’s going to happen. It happens to all of us.”

And now the Caps find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers, on the other hand, moved up from ninth to the third seed. Florida coach Kevin Dineen insisted earlier in the day that looking at standings is counterproductive.

“You control what you can. You can sit there and watch games last night and say, ‘I hope this team has a good night; I hope these guys don’t go into overtime.’ You really can’t look for outside help,” Dineen said. “You take care of your own business, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll look at the games that we play and take advantage of those.”

Simply, the Panthers did and the Caps didn’t, leaving Washington to resume the chase.

“This was a huge game to put a little bit of separation and just try to put it in the back of their minds that we can beat them, especially on their ice,” Alzner said. “It didn’t go our way; we didn’t play good enough.”