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."
Neuvirth might not be playing at an elite level had Prior not come back for the 2011-12 season after a one-year hiatus. Prior, who supported the Caps drafting Varlamov 23rd and Neuvirth 34th in 2006, wanted to return to coach the young goalies. Varlamov being traded to the Colorado Avalanche soon after left Neuvirth as the goalie with the longest connection to Prior in the organization.
Since Neuvirth returned from playing for HC Sparta Praha in the Czech Extraliga during the NHL lockout, it was Prior's advice about his playing too deep in the net that changed things. Prior called it the "European hangover," and Neuvirth is clearly over it.
"I did focus on that. I'm feeling good right now and Dave is happy with [the way] I play so far. And I want to keep that up," the Czech native said. "[The] more I play I'm feeling more comfortable. I expect me to play even better."
Meanwhile, Holtby is forced to wait. Victimized in part by the Caps' poor play during his first two starts of the season, he is determined not to let sitting on the bench disturb his confidence.
"I think the only time that really happens to guys is when the other guy that's playing isn't playing well. Then you start to second-guess," Holtby said. "The way Michal's been playing, we all know in here, especially myself, how capable Michal is of playing very well. As long as he keeps doing it, that's what we need. As soon as I'm called I want to do the exact same thing."
With a compressed, 48-game schedule, Holtby likely won't have to wait too long to get another chance to improve on his 5.04 goals-against average and .863 save percentage.
Having Holtby to turn to is a "luxury" for Oates, but for now it would be a disservice to his team to take Neuvirth out of the net. Still, being No. 1 won't change how Neuvirth views his own game.
"It's tough to go with one guy the whole season, there's always some up and downs," he said, "but I'm trying to play the same way all season."
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