Michal Neuvirth was the Washington Capitals’ starting goaltender in the playoffs last season, and this year’s No. 1, Tomas Vokoun, was out with the flu. So as the only healthy goalie around, Neuvirth figured he’d start Monday night against the San Jose Sharks.
Instead, the Caps called up Braden Holtby from the minors and gave him a start, dealing another blow to the 23-year-old Neuvirth in a season during which he is already struggling with subpar stats. Coach Dale Hunter’s blunt answer when asked about Neuvirth’s confidence said it all.
“It’s one of those things where if [Neuvirth] was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No,” Hunter said. “So it’s always judged on how you play.”
That was just the latest example of the Caps’ mismanagement of goalies, a troublesome trend that has appeared at just about every turn this season.
Even forgive the Caps on July 1 for declaring the kids were all right — that Neuvirth and Holtby, 22, were going to be their tandem this year. Vokoun came at too good of a price to pass up, a one-year deal for $1.5 million.
But then-coach Bruce Boudreau went out of his way from development camp in mid-July through training camp in September and October to say Vokoun deserved the “respect” of being the Caps’ No. 1 goalie. The day before the season rolled around, and Vokoun laughed off a question about being nervous opening night because, as it turned out, he wasn’t actually playing. His agent, Allan Walsh, said at the time the move could “certainly be perceived as a slap in the face.”
In early December, with Vokoun returning to South Florida to face his former team, the Panthers, for the first time, Hunter decided to start Neuvirth. The 35-year-old Vokoun remarked that day he’s a “paid employee” not making those kinds of decisions. Neuvirth allowed all the goals in a 5-4 loss.
In the past two months, the goaltending has been better than “solid,” the word Hunter used to describe the play of Vokoun and Neuvirth. Since center Nicklas Backstrom went out of the lineup with a concussion, the Caps have gone 7-8-3. Of those seven victories, four have been shutouts.
All too often, the Caps have needed their starting goaltender to stand on his head. Or they don’t win. Vokoun grasps that during a season that has been far from perfect.
“You’re always going to go through periods when things are not going your way or you don’t get to play or something,” Vokoun said. “It’s part of being a hockey player to learn how to deal with it and obviously succeed no matter what. As long as you perform, nobody can keep you out of the lineup.”
Perhaps the bar for performing is set unreasonably high. The Caps’ .908 save percentage is in the middle of the pack leaguewide, and though Neuvirth’s numbers — .894 save percentage and 3.07 goals-against average — look bad, the play in front of him has often been the cause.
“I think he’s had some pretty good games for us. I don’t think we’ve been helping him out that much. We went through quite a long stretch — we still are — of not helping out the goalies a whole lot,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “[Opponents are] getting a lot of shots, and he’s been the victim of a couple bad breaks as well. It’s hard. I can only imagine how hard it is for a goalie to be in and out, in and out, and be expected to play as a starter and get those starting numbers.”
Neuvirth seemed to take Monday’s miscommunication hard. And it wasn’t even a late decision. Although he didn’t know until arriving at Verizon Center that Holtby was starting, others around the team knew in the morning. A video discussing Holtby as the starter shown on the arena’s video boards before faceoff was filmed in the morning. Hunter, meanwhile, explained that he didn’t tell Neuvirth until later because the coaches were still “debating” the situation.
“At least if I knew Holtsy was going to get the start, but, you know, no one told me, so I was getting prepared for the game,” Neuvirth said. “And when I show up, found out I was not playing - it was tough to swallow.”
Associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig was at practice Wednesday and shared a story about a similar thing happening to him in February 2001, when then-Caps coach Ron Wilson decided just minutes before a game at the Colorado Avalanche to start Craig Billington instead.
Though Kolzig was an established veteran at the time, he wants Neuvirth to build off his strong performance in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers on Sunday rather than dwell on Monday’s disappointment.
“I’ve been through it and it’s all about how you respond afterwards. I’d be more worried if he was OK,” Kolzig said. “I actually like the fact that it bothered him and that he was upset, and hopefully he can use that disappointment as a positive type of motivation.”
But analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild made the point that this season-long series of mind games with goaltenders can be “concerning” moving forward.
“If you’re a goaltender, you thrive on routine. You want to know what the decisions are, as far in advance as possible, so that you can prepare mentally and physically,” Goldman said. “If you’re blindsided by something, all of a sudden you are forced as a goaltender to go through certain emotional things that otherwise you wouldn’t have to go through.”
All too often this season, the Caps have blindsided their last line of defense. And goaltenders are at their best when on edge in the crease not knowing what’s coming next — not when they’re on edge waiting for the next questionable decision.