-- No player in the Washington Capitals
dressing room has spent more time with Michal Neuvirth
than defenseman Karl Alzner
, so it is fair to say he's got a pretty good handle on the goaltender's personality.
"He's seems to be kind of be unflappable," Alzner said. "He's very calm on and off the ice. I think that in this situation, that's going to be pretty good for him. It has proven well for him in the playoffs in Hershey a couple of times. He's just a guy that if he gets scored on, he doesn't really let it get to him too much."
That demeanor will be put to the test Wednesday night at Verizon Center when Neuvirth is in net for his first career NHL playoff game against the New York Rangers
. Neuvirth and fellow 2006 draft pick Semyon Varlamov
have spent this season jostling for the No. 1 job in Washington, with fellow young netminder Braden Holtby
also squeezing his way into the competition.
Varlamov entered the year with more NHL postseason experience than Neuvirth, but the 23-year-old from the Czech Republic was able to stay healthy longer and that proved to play a big role in the derby.
"Right now, he's played way more games. He's won 27 games for us," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau
said. "It's not my thought only -- it is a collaboration of all the coaches. We thought he was the guy who has played the most games down the stretch and he's played the big games down the stretch and he's won the big games that we've needed to win."
While Varlamov has played in 19 postseason games for Boudreau, twice beginning the playoffs as Jose Theodore
's backup before supplanting the veteran, Neuvirth has built a formidable postseason resume of his own. He helped Plymouth to an Ontario Hockey League title and Memorial Cup berth in 2007, and has won back-to-back Calder Cup championships with Washington's AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.
Neuvirth was named the Calder Cup MVP in 2009, and he might have been even more valuable in 2010. He won 30 postseason games in that span, and defeated some elite goaltending prospects (Tuukka Rask
, Cory Schneider
and Jonathan Bernier
) along the way.
"We were in control of every series pretty much the first year, but the second year not so much," defenseman John Carlson
said. "We went down to Manchester, we were down to Texas, but he kept us in there and made it so we could battle back and win.
"He's a big-game goalie. He likes to be in that moment. He elevates his game when he's in that moment, it seems. For a defenseman it makes you feel pretty comfortable. He's had so much success and you feel good in front of him."
Boudreau was once Hershey's coach and maintains strong relationships with members of the Bears organization. He spent parts of those two Calder Cup runs watching at Giant Center with Hershey general manager Doug Yingst and other personnel evaluators in the organization after the Captials were knocked out of the NHL playoffs.
"I saw a lot of games in the playoffs last year," Boudreau said. "His demeanor when it is crunch time was outstanding. Championships are not only very difficult to win at any level, it takes something special to win them. He's done both. I don't classify him as a rookie. This is his third year pro. We thought he was our guy."
Neuvirth is a technically-sound goaltender, relying on positioning to cut down angles. He and Varlamov are an interesting contrast. The 22-year-old Russian is incredibly athletic and often uses raw power and quickness to make incredible saves, while Neuvirth is a study in economy of motion when he's at his best.
Both are relatively quiet, but extremely competitive. Neuvirth's personality might be read as aloof at times, but Alzner -- the guy who would know -- disagrees.
"It is maybe a weird comparison, but I was watching the [Washington] Wizards play the other night and I was watching John Wall go up and down the court and he looks like he doesn't even want to be out there but he gets to the top of the key and he drives on anybody and scores," Alzner said. "It is kind of like [Neuvirth] -- maybe it looks like he's not into it, but he always makes those big saves.
"He's go out there and proves it that he knows exactly what he's doing. He's always got his angles on. He's just a very smart goalie. He's kind of like Holtby -- when they are on the ice they kind of make things look easy when really there not."