Michal Neuvirth’s strong play a welcome dilemma for Capitals

MONTREAL — Before talking to reporters Wednesday night at Bell Centre, Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich went over to Michal Neuvirth and shook his hand. Despite being outshot for the seventh straight game, the Caps cruised to a 3-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens, thanks to the goaltender.

“I thought Michal was exceptional,” Laich said. “He made the saves, he covered the rebounds, he kicked things to the corner. He was tremendous.”

No bother that Neuvirth was starting for the first time in 23 days. He still turned aside 31 shots and likely put himself in line for another start Friday night at the Carolina Hurricanes. But how much Neuvirth plays moving forward is a question since Tomas Vokoun has cemented his status as the No. 1 goaltender.

“It just gives us so much more confidence, especially when Vokey’s playing well right now and Neuvy’s playing well,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “It gives the coaches a good, tough decision they have to make.”

It’s a good problem to have and one the Capitals haven’t dealt with this season: both goaltenders exceeding expectations. Vokoun and Neuvirth have gone through their share of struggles, and when they have coincided, team results have predictably followed.

Consider that for a 14-game stretch from late October to the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure, Washington allowed fewer than three goals just twice. In the past 16 games, they’ve allowed fewer than three goals 10 times.

“To win in this league, you need great goaltending all the time,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “Tomas has been on a pretty good run, and Michal had to sit there and watch it. So I’m sure he’s had some inspiration that the next time he got in the crease he was going to play well.”

Neuvirth was magnificent in Montreal, forcing some of the loudest and most fervent fans in the NHL into restless booing of the Canadiens. He credited teammates for blocking a lot of shots as the Capitals were forced to kill off seven power plays.

But Neuvirth found his groove and stifled the Canadiens, short-handed and otherwise. Coach Dale Hunter wasn’t surprised by the stellar performance, during which Neuvirth showed no real signs of rust.

“I was a little nervous before the game, and obviously I felt rested,” Neuvirth said. “I think I made a couple big saves, and I settled down. I felt great the rest of the way.”

Neuvirth probably had reason to be nervous. The Caps’ struggles on the road this season are well-documented, and he was knocked out of his last start in just more than 11 minutes when he allowed three goals on six shots at the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 26.

Since, Vokoun reeled off 10 straight starts, going 7-3-0 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. In the process, the 35-year-old established himself as the starter.

That’s why even after arguably his best game of the season, Neuvirth wasn’t ready to assume he’ll get the nod in Carolina.

“I’m pretty happy with my performance,” Neuvirth said. “But Vokey’s playing great right now, and we’ve been winning all the hockey games, so he’s No. 1 and I’m just happy to get a start tonight and got a big ‘W’ for myself and for the team.”

Teammates were just as happy, with Brouwer pointing out how Neuvirth made all the stops — especially the timely ones that short-circuited any momentum the Canadiens could have gotten.

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