Tomas Vokoun is fond of saying that it’s hard for the Washington Capitals to win when they don’t score goals. Scoring at least one is vital; “it’s pretty simple math,” he stated after a shutout loss in January.
Michal Neuvirth knows the feeling. At times this season, he’s virtually needed a shutout to earn a victory.
But with just 13 games left, it would be tough for the Capitals to win and make the playoffs if not for some solid to stellar goaltending. Lately, Vokoun and Neuvirth have gone save for save and game for game, giving coach Dale Hunter a pleasant dilemma.
Which goalie do you ride down the stretch?
“When you have two, it’s a coach’s dream there because it’s a lot of pressure on these guys,” Hunter said after Neuvirth’s 2-0 shutout of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday. “Both guys are ready to go, and that’s good for me.”
Both want the net and the rhythm that comes with regular starts. Vokoun has appeared in at least 44 games for the past nine seasons (including this one); Neuvirth has never been a backup goaltender in his career and has said a lighter workload has been an adjustment.
“I think its a challenge for both of these individuals only because they’re both used to having the lion’s share of the games. And Tomas in particular,” goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “For both of them, they’d sooner be in a regular rhythm of playing games. … [But] they understand what the ground rules are.”
The ground rules seem to be play well and win and you’re back in the net. Vokoun started 10 in a row at one point, following a string of five starts for Neuvirth. Back and forth they go, with Washington putting up wins generally when one goalie is on a roll.
Right now, both seem to be. Take out Neuvirth’s five-goal performance against New Jersey on March 2 that could be blamed more on poor play in front of him than his mistakes, and the Caps haven’t allowed more than three goals in a game since Feb. 22.
“They’ve been playing really good for us, and that’s what we need this time of the year,” center Mathieu Perreault said. “We’re trying to make the playoffs and we’re trying to make a push to catch up on Florida, so it’s what we need from our goaltending.”
Who starts Tuesday at the New York Islanders? The fact that it’s a matter of debate is good for the Capitals. That might safeguard against what has been a season-long trend of one goalie going on a run and then getting lit up when he goes cold.
And if Vokoun and Neuvirth manage to keep up this kind of play, it can only help the guys in front of them by relieving the pressure of needing to score a lot to win.
“Goaltending has been great. I think we’re finding our identity,” forward Brooks Laich said. “I think we’re comfortable with our systems and we’re starting to elevate our game.”