Michal Neuvirth was nervous. Before Sunday, the Washington Capitals' backup goaltender hadn't played a game since March 16, and he hadn't started at Verizon Center since Feb. 5.
"In the first few minutes, I felt like it was my first game of the year," Neuvirth said after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2. "I haven't played so long, especially in this building. I missed playing here."
In his third start anywhere in the Caps' past 26 games, Neuvirth settled in after an early goal to make 28 saves and pick up his first victory since March 14.
"I gave up [a] goal on the first shot, it's always tough, but I stick to my plan and I made a couple of big saves, and it got me going and I feel good the rest of the way," Neuvirth said.
Neuvirth playing broke Braden Holtby's streak of consecutive starts at 11. Holtby went 8-2-1 with a 2.32 goals against average and .923 save percentage over that time.
Coach Adam Oates called Neuvirth's performance "solid." Neuvirth made two point-blank saves on Vincent Lecavalier and a handful of other memorable ones. The 25-year-old found a rhythm in net not long after a soft goal by Alex Killorn.
"I'm getting [paid] to stop pucks," Neuvirth said. "That's what I did tonight. I'm glad to get back in the action and gave Holts a little bit of rest."
Defenseman John Carlson said the Caps "rallied around [Neuvirth's] efforts." After relying on Holtby to make big stops for the past couple of weeks, it's a positive for players to know Neuvirth can do the same when called upon.
"He wait his chance, and when you feel that your goalie play unbelievable, like he make great saves, you just feel comfortable out there," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "He make big save, keep us in the game and we just focus on our style and our system and it works."
Neuvirth acknowledged it was a huge relief to win a game after so much time off. And it's a boost for the Caps that, in center Nicklas Backstrom's words, the goaltender was such a "big part of this win."
"Neuvy played great; he made some big saves there in the first period, especially on their power play there," Backstrom said. "That's what we need. We need that kind of big saves, they give you confidence, and then we went from there."
Ward OK after shot block
Right wing Joel Ward was fine after taking a slap shot to the left leg Sunday that forced him to leave the game, Oates said. Ward blocked Lightning defenseman Sami Salo's shot in the third period and tried to get in front of another one while in pain before getting off the ice.
"He's OK, took a hard shot there," Oates said. "He was walking it off and we were OK."
Ward did not return to the game but is expected to be all right for Tuesday at the Montreal Canadiens.
Ward scored the game-winning goal against Tampa Bay, but it was his sacrifice in blocking Salo's shot that earned the well-liked 32-year-old even more respect from teammates.
"That's the mentality we have in the room right now," defenseman Steve Oleksy said. "It's playoff hockey, playoff-type atmosphere. Those are the things you've got to do in order to win. Obviously his sacrifice for the team, not only was it a huge block but we fed off that, too, for the rest of the third period there."
Hillen's wife gives birth
Defenseman Jack Hillen reported his wife, Caitlin, and newborn baby, Knox Patrick, were doing well as of Sunday night. Caitlin Hillen went into labor about the time her husband was going onto the ice for warm-ups Saturday night, giving birth to a 7 pound, 1 ounce baby before her husband knew what was happening.
"Her due date was the 17th, so she was very early, and it's awesome," Hillen said. "It's a blessing. Everyone's healthy, so it's great."
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