HERSHEY, Pa. | Michal Neuvirth has been through quite a bit the past two seasons, from injuries to trades to demotions based on circumstance instead of merit.
Through it all, he has remained resolute in his quest to become an NHL goaltender. Still, it would have been easy for him to see fellow 2007 draft pick Simeon Varlamov’s star turn with the Washington Capitals this postseason as the breaking point.
Instead, the 21-year-old Czech Republic native has proved his resiliency again. Neuvirth has been fantastic for the Hershey Bears this postseason and is a big reason why they will face Manitoba in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals, which begin Saturday in Winnipeg.
“My goal is always to make the NHL, and I am doing whatever it takes to get there - and [right now] it’s playing good in the AHL,” Neuvirth said. “I’m glad [Varlamov] played good up there. He showed young guys can step up. I’m really happy with what he did. I think it is good for me, [Braden] Holtby and [Daren Machesney], so thanks to him for sure.”
Added Hershey coach Bob Woods: “He knew what he has to do. He’s got to take care of business here. He’s got to prove that he can get it done at this level, and then the next step is to fight for a position up there. This experience is only going to help him. He’s a guy who has been bounced around a little bit from the ECHL to back to Europe, but he’s settled in here and done an amazing job.”
Neuvirth’s travels since the Capitals selected him in the second round of the 2007 draft - 11 picks after they tabbed Varlamov - have been well-documented. He played for three different Ontario Hockey League teams and the Czech national team in the world junior championships last season. This year he has donned four uniforms, playing with Washington, Hershey and South Carolina of the ECHL - and even spending one practice with a team in the Czech Republic before returning to North America.
The biggest steps forward in his development came this season while he spent time backing up Jose Theodore with the Caps after Brent Johnson had hip surgery. Neuvirth played sparingly but did go 2-1-0 with a 3.00 goals-against average in five appearances.
It was the practice time with the Caps that he benefited from most.
“You get them up there, and it is not as forgiving in practice or in the games. He addressed some stuff in his game,” Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “I [said] to his face [that] I thought he was playing too much of an [ECHL] game - cheating too much and getting away with it - but he was able to get that out of his game when he was up there because he had to be more honest. I praised him when I came down here [to Hershey] because he hasn’t gone backwards, even though the shooters in this league aren’t like the [Alex Ovechkins or Viktor Kozlovs].
“He’s maintained his structure in his game, and I think that’s why he is enjoying the success with the good team in front of him.”
Neuvirth played in 17 games for the Bears in the regular season, posting a 9-5-2 record with a 2.70 GAA and a .913 save percentage - solid numbers, but he was only getting comfortable. While Varlamov took control of the net in Washington during the NHL playoffs, Neuvirth’s game has found a new level with Hershey.
He is 12-4 with a 2.03 GAA and a .929 save percentage in the playoffs, and he has three shutouts - including back-to-back whitewashes of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Games 6 and 7 of the second round to rally the Bears from a 3-2 deficit.
“I’m feeling good with my game right now, and I’m playing with confidence,” Neuvirth said. “I think the guys believe in me, and I believe in the guys and my defense. It has been a team effort, and I think we’ve played great. It is going to be a battle in the finals.”
Added Woods: “He’s a competitor who knows what it takes to win. He’s very efficient and can handle the workload. He’s been great, and he’s grown up so much experiencing what he’s experienced - a Game 7 at the AHL level is pretty impressive, especially against a team like Wilkes-Barre. To have the two shutouts - he’s definitely making a mark for himself. I’m sure Washington has to be feel pretty good about what they’re seeing.”
In the finals, Neuvirth will go head-to-head with Manitoba’s Cory Schneider, a first-round pick by Vancouver in 2004. Schneider cemented his status as one of the game’s top goalie prospects by being named the top netminder in the AHL this season.
Thus far in the postseason, Neuvirth and Schneider have matching GAAs, while the Bears’ goaltender has a slightly better save percentage. This won’t be Neuvirth’s first showdown with a much-hyped goalie during this playoff run; Hershey just defeated Providence in the conference finals, and the Bruins boast top prospect Tuukka Rask.
“I don’t know much about Manitoba - we haven’t watched the video yet - but I know Cory Schneider is a pretty good goalie,” Neuvirth said. “I think Tuukka Rask is a pretty good goalie, and I think he should be in the NHL or he is going to be there pretty soon. That was a great challenge, and I am glad I won that series. Now I want to beat Cory Schneider in the finals.”