- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2014

Blanketed by disappointment for the better part of two months, Michal Neuvirth was fraught by anxiety Friday afternoon, knowing that the opportunity he wanted for some time was finally approaching.

The Washington Capitals’ goaltender had not played in seven weeks, and the isolation and frustration bore down on him. An injury explained his absence from the rink for 10 days, but there were no answers after that. Rather than returning to the ice, he sat patiently, often in dress clothes, as Braden Holtby and then rookie Philipp Grubauer filled the net.

Friday, though, was different. For the first time in 20 games, and exactly seven weeks to the day of his last appearance, Neuvirth was back. His 32 saves helped the Capitals win their second consecutive game, a 3-2 decision over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center.

“I was nervous as hell,” Neuvirth said. “I just told myself, you know, it’s just another game. You’ve been for some time in this league. I can say I was confident. It’s unbelievable feeling right now.”

Neuvirth’s brief career has been plagued by setbacks. A rookie during the 2009-10 season, he sat patiently behind Semyon Varlamov but still managed to play in 48 games. He expected to take over as the Capitals’ top goalie the following season after Varlamov was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, but Washington signed veteran Tomas Vokoun and again relegated Neuvirth to the bench.

Vokoun was gone last year, but on the heels of a strong playoff performance the year before, Braden Holtby established himself as the Capitals’ top goaltender. And, after signing a contract extension last spring, Neuvirth figured he’d get a better shot during the offseason to capture a starting role.

It didn’t happen. Holtby continued as the Capitals’ top goaltender, and Neuvirth started just seven of the first 23 games. On Nov. 29, before his eighth start, he stepped on a puck during pregame warm-ups and sprained his right ankle, forcing him from the Capitals’ next six games.

He reported to the Hershey Bears on a conditioning stint in mid-December, when he played in only one game before being recalled, but was a healthy scratch for the Capitals’ last nine games. Philipp Grubauer, a rookie, strung together a series of strong performances, starting six of the previous seven games. Entering Friday, Grubauer ranked second among rookie goaltenders with a .931 save percentage, third with a 2.27 goals against average and fourth with 350 saves.

Frustrated by the lack of playing time, Neuvirth’s agent went public with a trade demand on Dec. 29, but the goaltender remained off the ice for the four games after the request. That left Neuvirth with his first opportunity to play since the injury on Friday – a tougher than normal situation, especially given the Capitals were coming off a draining, 4-3 road victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

“He waited his turn, he did what you’re supposed to do and be professional,” said coach Adam Oates. “Obviously, I understand as a coach that a guy’s frustrated, but the circumstances – you can’t control. My job is to coach the team best I can and get the win. But he had to wait. He got a lot of practice time and played good tonight. Good for him.”

Neuvirth eased himself into the game by stopping 13 shots in the first period. The first goal he allowed was a deflection by Maple Leafs winger James Van Riemsdyk on the power play 9:08 into the second period, and the other happened on a looping shot by winger Phil Kessel just 54 seconds into the third.

He was helped by a first-period goal by Alex Ovechkin, his 32nd of the season, and a goal 4:36 into the third period by Nicklas Backstrom – one which bounced off Maple Leafs center Jay McClement’s foot before crossing behind goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

The Capitals’ third goal, the 13th of the year by Joel Ward, was a tic-tac-toe setup via Marcus Johansson, Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green with under eight minutes remaining. With a minute left, Neuvirth sustained the Maple Leafs’ man advantage with Bernier out of the net.

“Hats off to him,” Ward said. “He’s been battling and coming to practice every day, and it’s obviously tough the situation that we have with three goalies. He just keeps battling, so good for him. Well-deserved, and he’s been working hard, so hopefully, he keeps winning.”

Neuvirth, unable to catch his typical pregame nap, didn’t think he’d have any problem sleeping afterward. It was just one game, he cautioned, and doesn’t erase the sting of the previous seven weeks.

“I was just trying to get myself ready,” Neuvirth said. “It paid off tonight. I’m really happy with the win.”

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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