- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2012

Michal Neuvirth seems to be on top of his game lately. The goalie has stopped 124 of the past 132 shots he has faced and won three games in a row for the Washington Capitals. And that’s after a couple solid relief performances at the Hurricanes and Senators.

“I feel pretty good. I feel good in Carolina, and I had a good game in Ottawa. After that, it was big three wins for us. We’ve got to keep this thing rolling.”

But goaltending coach Dave Prior doesn’t agree with the notion that his 23-year-old pupil is finally putting his game together after a rocky almost three-quarters of the season. Prior feels Neuvirth’s season-long numbers (9-9-3, 2.83 goals-against average and .903 save percentage) are distorted by a few bad games and that this little run hasn’t been anything near perfect.

“I don’t feel that way about his season play — I’m not as satisfied with all aspects of his game, as I think he’s been successful for us. It’s a job that it’s not like he’s flawless in his performance,” Prior said in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m not down on him. I feel better about his season than I guess most people do.”

Prior said he had some criticism of goals Neuvirth allowed in relief in Carolina and cautioned that recent success might have a large bit to do with the Capitals improving in front of him.

“I’m pleased with where his game is at, but I do think our team’s limited the type of scoring chances he faced earlier in the year — both goaltenders dealt with higher-quality scoring chances at times,” Prior said. “I think we’ve done a better job defensively as a team.”

Tomas Vokoun got yanked in back-to-back contests on a recent road trip, but Prior that the entire team has faltered in those games. He also has had more chances to balance out the bad ones.

But that has been an ongoing battle for Neuvirth, too. This is his first season being a backup goaltender, and he has admitted feeling the struggles.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he told reporters Thursday. “Obviously, there’s some up and downs, but I always bounce back. The last three games I’ve been feeling pretty good. I had a good practice today, and I’m excited about tomorrow.”

If he gets the nod Friday night against the New Jersey Devils, it would be Neuvirth’s fourth consecutive start. Up until recently, he hadn’t started more than two in a row and never on back-to-back days until last week.

Other than more playing time, Neuvirth wasn’t able to explain what has improved or changed in his game. Practice spent working with associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig might have helped, but Prior said Neuvirth needs to draw more from himself on improvement.

“When you play infrequently, you have to become good at evaluating yourself in practice to be able to gauge are you’re doing the things to be successful when you get put into the game,” he said. “With Michal not having been the backup goaltender previously in his career, he hasn’t really had to hone that skill of making sure your practices are exact, so that you know when you get to play, you’re going to perform up to your potential.”

Prior admitted that Neuvirth “previously he got away with relying on his talent some.” Now, he’s getting to the point where there’s more consistency in his game.

It has been a challenge for Neuvirth and Vokoun to split games this season, with each one seemingly getting a run of starts and the other getting accustomed to the bench. Prior thinks it’s easier for Neuvirth to deal with that alongside Vokoun than, say, Semyon Varlamov, who doesn’t have that experience edge.

“In this case when Tomas is running with the ball, I think for Michal he recognizes the experience Tomas brings to the table that he doesn’t have. Its not that he’s not interceding in taking the ball himself. He is,” Prior said. “Right now he’s in a position where he’s got the ball for the last few games, and he’s going to try to make the most of it and not drop it.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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