Michal Neuvirth knows what it’s like to be a backup in the NHL and he doesn’t like it.
And that’s just fine with Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior, who will see Neuvirth make his fourth straight start Tuesday night in Ottawa against the Senators.
Ever since Olie Kolzig left the Caps following the 2007-08 season, Neuvirth has been part of the revolving door of goaltenders that have occupied the Capitals’ crease.
In 2008-09 and 2009-10 Neuvirth was third in line behind Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov. In 2010-11, he won the job over Varlamov and was convincing enough in the playoffs for the Capitals to trade Varlamov to Colorado.
And then last season happened.
Poised to be the Caps’ starter, Neuvirth took another back seat, this time to free-agent addition Tomas Vokoun.
When a groin tear ended Vokoun’s season and opened the door for Neuvirth to reclaim the No. 1 job, misfortune struck when the 23-year-old netminder was crashed into by Panthers forward Marco Sturm.
Braden Holtby held down the fort for a playoff-clinching victory over Florida and carried the Caps to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Which brings us to this season.
Holtby allowed 10 goals in his first two games as the Caps’ starter, allowing Neuvirth the opportunity to take the reins. In three starts this season Neuvirth is 1-1-1 with a 2.92 GAA.
“He looks very sharp,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “Your team gets a pulse from your goalie. Right now he’s playing very well and he’s getting the rest he needs.”
This is a critical season for Neuvirth. Now in his fifth NHL season he is in the final year of his contract with the Caps and his future with the club beyond this season remains uncertain.
“I get a little defensive on his behalf when people are surprised,” Prior said. “When he was injured [against the Panthers last season] he came out of that game with a shutout and Braden came into that game and struggled.
“Braden had to get his game more refined for the playoffs. But I had total confidence in Michal when Tomas went down. It wasn’t like I was worried. His success in the playoffs at the minor-league level showed me he has a head on his shoulders and he handles pressure well. So I’m not surprised how he’s played here, and I’m happy for him.”
Oates has repeatedly said that he will ride the goaltender that is playing best this season and for now that’s Neuvirth.
Holtby, 22, said he completely understands Oates’ decision and with eight sets of back-to-back games this season, including ones Thursday in Toronto and Friday at home against Philadelphia, he knows his time will come.
“We’re a team in here and I view myself as part of that group as well,” he said. “If we’re not performing as a group that’s part of my doing as well.”
Holtby said he did not play as poorly as the scores indicated in his first two starts when the Caps lost 6-3 to the Lightning and 4-2 to the Jets.
“Overall they weren’t performances I’m going to lose confidence over,” he said. “No matter how many games you’ve had, you need to be ready for when you get the opportunity.”
Prior said he thought Neuvirth’s best game of the season was Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Devils in which he stopped 32 of 35 shots. He followed that game with his first victory of the season and now owns a 52-31-10 record in the NHL. That includes a 4-0-0 mark against the team he’ll face next, the Senators.
“He's never given me reason to ever doubt him, which is why I've always believed in him,” Prior said. “I only see the real exceptional side of Michal and anything that is sort of a drawback is all manageable for me. That's why I've always supported him as an NHL goalie."
As for some of the comments made by Neuvirth about never settling as an NHL backup, Prior looks at that differently than most.
"I don't think he has a chip on his shoulder,” prior said. “I think he's probably of the opinion, 'I wonder why they doubt me' more than anything because he doesn't doubt himself.”