- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2013

At the moment, there’s absolutely no goaltending controversy for the Washington Capitals. But it’s not playoff darling Braden Holtby who grabbed a hold of the starting job.

It’s Michal Neuvirth, whose mannerisms and play are understated but whose performances so far this season have been exceptional.

“He’s never given me reason to ever doubt him, which is why I’ve always believed in him,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “I only see the real exceptional side of Michal.”

Prior has always been a believer in Neuvirth, a second-round pick of the Caps in 2006. Still, the 24-year-old has seemingly always been a second option in goal, whether it was behind Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Vokoun or Holtby.

“I don’t think he has a chip on his shoulder,” Prior said. “I think he’s probably of the opinion, ‘I wonder why they doubt me’ more than anything because he doesn’t doubt himself.”

Considered Holtby’s backup, or 1B at best, coming into the season, Neuvirth got a chance in the third game and did enough to earn two more starts. A stellar showing Friday in an overtime loss and another impressive one Sunday in victory means Neuvirth will start Tuesday at Ottawa.

And he could have a tight grip on the starting job for a while if this kind of play continues. Coach Adam Oates will ride the hot hand for now, and Neuvirth is playing almost as good as it gets.

“And a team, you get a pulse from your goalie, right?” Oates said. “You’re on the bench, you’re watching and the saves look solid and they don’t look like ‘Uh, oh!’And that’s a good feeling for your team.”

Quietly confident, Neuvirth gives off the air of a No. 1 goaltender. One of his gifts, though, is being able to find tunnel vision when he puts his mask on.

“I’m just trying to play my game, stay on the top of the crease and be patient,” Neuvirth said. “I know from my experience it’s a long season and you never know. I just want to work hard every day and if I get the chance I want to help my team to get a ‘W.’”

Experience is part of where Neuvirth has an edge on Holtby, who starred with a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in last year’s playoffs. Neuvirth wasn’t quite as good as the playoff starter the previous season, but he would have been the guy again had he not suffered a hip injury.

“He’s young, but he’s got a lot of NHL starts and he’s had some highs and lows, which makes a guy stronger,” Oates said.

Prior saw enough from Neuvirth in playoff situations in the Ontario Hockey League and American Hockey League to project him as an NHL goaltender.

And while others were anointing Holtby as the Caps’ goalie of the present and future, Prior never lost sight of what Neuvirth could do.

“I get a little defensive on his behalf when people are sort of surprised [by Neuvirth],” Prior said. “His success in the playoffs at the junior and minor league level [shows] he’s got a head on his shoulders that handles pressure well. I’m not surprised how he’s played here.”

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