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Capitals goalies will have to Czech egos at door

by Corey Masisak
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Michal Neuvirth won nine of his last 11 starts to end the regular season, then played every minute in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Washington Capitals.

If that wasn't enough to make him the No. 1 goaltender in Washington, then a July 1 trade that sent his main competition (Semyon Varlamov) to Colorado certainly did. A day later, though, his long and winding journey to the top spot in net for the Capitals took another turn.

Fellow Czech Republic native Tomas Vokoun failed to find a new home on the first day of free agency, so the Capitals nabbed him at a discount rate. Now the two will spend the season competing for time in the Washington net.

The Capitals decided against bringing in a veteran goaltender before last season because they believed in Neuvirth and Varlamov, but also because there wasn’t a goaltender of Vokoun's caliber available at such a team-friendly cost.


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"We certainly thought we could approach this season with Michal and [Braden] Holtby, but when Tomas became available, we couldn't pass up on that experience," Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior said. "That's the biggest difference, is Tomas brings some experience to the position."

Neuvirth had a solid first full season in the NHL, which followed back-to-back Calder Cup championships in the American Hockey League and a trip to the Memorial Cup during his junior career.

That said, Vokoun has been one of the elite goalies in the NHL for some time. He and Boston's Tim Thomas are tied for the top save percentage in the League since the start of the 2005-06 season among goalies who have played more than 100 games (.922), and he's made the fifth-most saves in that span.

Vokoun did much of that work with the Florida Panthers, who have not made the playoffs in a decade. He routinely has been among the League leaders in shots faced, but when something like a game of goalie musical chairs happened on July 1, Vokoun was the one guy left without a new contract.

"All my life has always been a battle -- if you look at my stats and still people doubt you. Look at what happened to me on July 1," Vokoun said. "I guess it comes with playing on a team in a non-traditional market. It is my chance to show people in a market where people follow you to show them how really good I am. You look at it as an opportunity.

"Am I happy about what happened? Certainly not. Am I excited to be playing on this team with these types of players? Absolutely."

The task for Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, and the goalie coaching duo of Prior and Olie Kolzig, is to make sure both guys who fancy themselves as No. 1 goaltenders stay happy despite the fact that there probably won't be enough starts to appease both.

Boudreau has said Vokoun will likely begin the season as the starter, but expects both to play a lot. Vokoun has played at least 57 games in each of the past four seasons, but he is also 36 years old and could probably use some extra time off if the club expects to play deep into the postseason.

"I've said this to Tomas and Michal both -- when Michal is at the top of his game, he is every bit as good a goaltender as Tomas Vokoun," Prior said. "In the past maybe it has been harder for him to play consistently at the top of his game. I think it is sort of open for success.

"Obviously Bruce has said that Tomas is the veteran guy and that initially is probably where we're going to lay our chips, but with Michal I am very proud of his reaction so far and it shows me that we did the right thing with him. He thinks like a No. 1 goaltender, but he's not upset with this and is not taking this as a vote of non-confidence. He's just, 'Well, let's see and let the season be the judge of things.' Both of them know what goaltending is about and I always tell our goaltenders, 'If you're not winning, you should expect to be watching.' If they're both winning, then great, because I expect they'll both get plenty of playing time."
This is not the first time the Capitals have asked the 23-year-old Neuvirth to be patient. He and Varlamov were drafted together in 2006, but Varlamov always nudged out in front of Neuvirth during their rise to the NHL in part because he had experience playing with professionals in Russia.

Eventually, Neuvirth caught up and continued to succeed regardless of the obstacles put in front of him. That quality is precisely the reason why general manager George McPhee didn't hesitate to add Vokoun when the market shifted so dramatically in the team's favor.

"I never feared for Michal because I think he's resilient," Prior said. "That would be the word I would use to describe him. Yes, he gets down at times like all of us, but I always felt he was resilient and talented -- much more so than a lot of other goaltenders who have been trying to make it in the NHL. I never feared how he would bounce back from that, and this situation is no different. He's handled the acquisition of Tomas Vokoun perfectly."

Neuvirth has said he looked up to Vokoun during his youth, and Prior called the respect the young Czech goalie has for his countryman "a bonus." It could be the key to the whole process though -- Neuvirth might have felt a little more slighted if Vokoun hadn't been the addition.

To this point in camp, the two goalies haven't seen a lot of each other because they've been on different practice schedules. Defenseman Roman Hamrilik is also around, so there's another guy from the Czech Republic for them to hang out with.

This season has provided a couple of clear goals for Vokoun -- he's got his best chance to win the Stanley Cup after a long career and he's out to prove there were some teams who made a mistake in July when they looked elsewhere for their starting goaltender.

"If you look at it from the prospective hockey and the chance you have with something to prove -- I did a lot on the international level but I've never been fortunate to be on a team where I was on a team with aspirations to win the Stanley Cup," Vokoun said. "Some people see it as a pressure, but I don't. I enjoy it, and it gives me an opportunity to do something I haven't been able to do.

"Anybody who knows me, and from what I've heard about Michal is good, but I've never heard problems. I've played long enough that I don't anticipate any problems and he seems like a nice guy. We're both professionals and we both know what the rules and requirements are going to be. … We're just two guys on the team with a job to do."
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