TORONTO — When young Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov got turned inside out by Toronto Maple Leafs All-Star Phil Kessel, it would have been hard to blame Michal Neuvirth for letting in a goal. One-on-one, he instead made a big stop.
In making that save and countless others over the past week, Neuvirth may have again re-established himself as the Capitals’ go-to guy in net. He might not be the most talented goaltender on a roster with Tomas Vokoun, and his stats don’t quite measure up to his veteran counterpart’s, but Neuvirth in recent games and especially Saturday night proved his ability to compensate for mistakes around him.
“You’re trying to keep the shots down and scoring chances especially down,” coach Dale Hunter said after his team’s 4-2 victory Saturday night. “When we do break down, that happens in the game — it’s a game of mistakes — he came up large tonight.”
Neuvirth made 28 saves for the win, his second in a row and second in two days. Hunter has seemed reluctant to turn away from Vokoun and give the 23-year-old consistent playing time since late December, but now might be the time.
Vokoun drew the ire of Hunter on Wednesday for allowing four goals on 11 shots in a 5-2 loss at the Ottawa Senators. Even though the veteran wasn’t as bad as his stats suggested thanks to some poor play in front of him, what Neuvirth proved this week was an ability to save teammates from their own devices.
“It protects the game. It protects the lead that you have or keeps you in the game if you’re even or down,” forward Jeff Halpern said. “Those are huge saves. Some of those are deflections that went to the guy in the back or he bailed us out.”
That’s the idea, and the Caps play better when Neuvirth is between the pipes. Mike Green admitted as much before the game.
“It’s huge for us because lately it seems to be happening quite frequent,” the defenseman said. “We’ve got to eliminate that, but we know that he’s standing on his head for us, and that makes us play harder for him.”
The win over the Maple Leafs was a great example of that, as Neuvirth got consistent action but only had to make a few dazzling saves. One on Carl Gunnarson on a delayed penalty in the second period might have been the save of the night.
But each stop Neuvirth makes keeps Washington chugging along.
“We need all the guys out there,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “The goalie is probably the most important guy, making all those big stops; it just builds his confidence too and we know when he’s playing good, he’s really good. So it’s very good to see that.”
Neuvirth said these two victories — his first in consecutive games all season — were crucial.
“I mean, it’s absolutely great,” he said. “Not even for myself but for the whole group.”