Capitals’ young goalies Neuvirth, Holtby eager to make a difference down the stretch

Vokoun aggravated a groin injury Thursday

It’s uncertain how long veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun will be out after apparently aggravating a groin injury Thursday. But with the end of the regular season just a little over a week away, it’s likely the Washington Capitals will have to go through the home stretch with Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby between the pipes.

It’s a huge opportunity for the 24-year-old and the 22-year-old, but one they’re embracing.

“It’s unfortunate what happened the other night with Tomas, Holtby said. “You always want to see your teammates back, but that’s hockey; that’s the way the game goes, and now I just have to be ready for whatever.”

Vokoun is being officially called “day-to-day” by coach Dale Hunter, but a groin problem for a 35-year-old goaltender is something that could linger — and already has, as he first suffered one several weeks ago. He left Thursday’s game at the Boston Bruins with 1:35 left in the first period, skating right off the ice and walking down the tunnel. It was just his fourth appearance in 18 games and he admitted not being pain-free.

The veteran’s absence in recent weeks has allowed Neuvirth and Holtby to show what they can do.

“They had to run with it there. And [goaltending coach] Dave Prior’s here full-time right now, so he’s the one dealing with them and getting them prepared mentally and physically,” Hunter said. “They got some experience. And Michal’s been here for a couple years in playoffs, that pressure cooker last year in the playoffs. And he’s played well, Philly and Detroit, Braden has played well.”

Neuvirth will likely get the chance to shoulder the load, thanks to his solid, 19-save performance in relief Thursday, and he’s an excellent bet to start Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens.

“I proved last year that I can be the man,” Neuvirth said, “and I’m excited and I’m going to take it one game at a time and just try to focus on tomorrow.”

Neuvirth can draw from his starting role last season, when Bruce Boudreau decided early on that he was “the man” and would stay that way throughout the playoffs.

During an up-and-down season, Neuvirth (12-12-5, 2.89 goals-against average, .900 save percentage) tries to draw confidence from each game he plays in.

“Every game is a good experience for me,” he said. “Even last year in the playoffs that gave me a lot [of confidence,] and I feel I grew up a little bit from last year, and I feel that I can do the job.”

Holtby (2-2-1, 2.70 GAA, .915 SV% this year) won 10 games for the Caps last season and thinks he can do the job, too.

“That’s what everyone’s goal is: to be a big part of a team trying to win the Stanley Cup. When you take all personalities and teammates out of it, that’s everyone’s goal,” Holtby said. “But there’s a human aspect to it and we want to make sure that in any way possible that [Vokoun] doesn’t feel like he let the team down by an injury. That’s our job to pick up a teammate and make sure we carry ourselves into the playoffs.”

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