-- There's something about the New Jersey Devils
that brings out the best in Washington Capitals
goalie Michal Neuvirth
Neuvirth, who entered the game 3-0-0 with a 1.33 GAA and .960 save percentage in three career starts against the Devils, turned aside 33 shots on Friday to help lead the surging Capitals to a 3-0 victory against the Devils at the Prudential Center. It was Neuvirth's fourth shutout of the season and first of his career against the Devils.
Still, Neuvirth's rousing effort between the pipes in no way has steered coach Bruce Boudreau's decision to name his starter for the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month. The Caps have three excellent young goaltenders in Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov (out with a knee injury) and Braden Holtby, who played well enough to be named the NHL's First Star last week.
"He was pretty good," Boudreau said of Neuvirth. "You could tell he wanted it. He was upset after allowing that third goal in Detroit (in a 3-2 loss on Wednesday) and he's a competitor. Early on, he was the difference … probably the whole game he was difference. But we'll keep going on. (Semyon Varlamov) will get his chance next week and we'll see where it goes."
Neuvirth felt much more comfortable on Friday after making his first start in six games in a loss to the Red Wings two nights earlier.
"I felt rusty (against Detroit) but it was good experience for me," he said. "They have a good team and that was probably the toughest building I ever played in. But tonight was a different story. I felt good. It was a good team effort for two points."
He also saluted his teammates, including Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon, who each blocked two shots.
"I saw the shots and the guys made it easy by blocking shots," he said. There was no traffic and I was seeing the puck well. I think I saw every shot on the net."
Mike Knuble notched his first two-goal game of the season, defenseman Jeff Schultz scored his first goal of the season and Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson each had a pair of assists to give the Capitals their 10th victory in the last 11 games. The Caps are now even in points (94) with the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers, though they've played three more games. Washington continues its six-game road trip with a visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday.
"They came out desperate and we didn't really respond and kind of let them run over us," Knuble said. "Neuvy played well and kept us in the game and we had one good shot in first period by Jeff Schultz, of all people."
The Devils, who have lost two straight for the first time since dropping four in a row from Jan. 1-8, held a 33-12 shot advantage but just couldn't solve Neuvirth. In fact, the 12 shots against were the fewest allowed by the Devils this season -- the previous low was 14 on Dec. 23 in a 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders.
The Caps didn't get many chances, but made the most of the ones they got. Neuvirth did the rest.
"I thought our (shooting) percentage was fabulous," Boudreau said. "I think Neuvy's confidence is up there. He knows he's a good goalie. I thought it would be tough to get one by him once he made a couple of those back-to-back-to-back saves in the second period. I thought they would have trouble scoring, and it might end up 1-0."
The loss, one night after a 3-1 defeat at Ottawa, kept the Devils six points behind eighth-place Buffalo with 11 games remaining.
"We just have to get prepared for next game, that's all," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. "It's still going to be one game at a time. I can't take credit from their goalie because I thought he played very good. There are some nights, when things are going well, the puck seem to find its way and other times its tougher."
The triumph enabled the Capitals to reach 20 road wins for the fourth straight season. The Capitals have allowed just 17 goals in their 10-1 surge, holding the opposition to two goals or fewer in nine of the last 11 and in 11 of the last 14.
"It was kind of a boring game, I think," Ovechkin said. "Both teams were trying to play more solid defensively, but I think they have way more chances then us. But Neuvs played unbelievable and we use our chances to score three goals."
Knuble scored his second goal of the game 11:24 into the third when he collected a cross-ice feed from Ovechkin in the right circle and beat Martin Brodeur with a wrister that tucked just under the crossbar. Ilya Kovalchuk barely missed cutting the deficit when he broke in against Neuvirth with 2:57 left but the Czech goalie held his ground. After being denied for the fifth time in the game by Neuvirth, a frustrated Kovalchuk slammed his stick on the boards.
"He's playing a little tighter … I could see," Lemaire said of Kovalchuk. "Kovy wants to do so much for this team. He has to play a shift at a time and not try and do too much. He has to focus on what he has to do and what he's doing now is too much."
Despite being outshot 20-8 through two periods, the Capitals entered the second intermission with a 2-0 lead. Knuble extended the lead to two with his 18th of the season at 15:58. Carlson made it happen by skating deep into the right circle and faking a snap shot before eyeing Knuble in the slot for a quick shot past Brodeur.
Neuvirth made two great saves on Kovalchuk in the middle period, the first coming off a bull rush through the slot just 1:23 after Knuble's goal. He also denied Anton Volchenkov and Brian Rolston from in close as the Capitals were forced to kill three penalties in the period. Capitals center Matt Hendricks was whistled for a double minor for high sticking at 16:51, but the Devils generated just two shots the remainder of the second and zero in the opening 51 seconds of power-play time the third.
"I thought we were really good," Boudreau said of the Caps' penalty-killing. "It's nothing new. They looked a little tired and frustrated when they weren't scoring, but Gordon and Laich were blocking shots and the defense did a good job of screening out. I thought that and the goaltending and PK were the difference because we didn't have too many power-plays."
The Devils went penalty-free for the second time this season -- the last coming Jan. 4 in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota.
The Caps opened the scoring 6:10 into the game on Schultz's first goal of the season, a blast from the top of the left circle that clipped Brodeur's glove and went into the net. It was the first goal for Schultz since Feb. 11, 2010, and the last of the two shots taken by the Caps in the opening 20 minutes as the Devils poured it on Neuvirth, who was called upon to make 12 saves.
"I've had my ups and downs but lately I'm feeling good and confident about my game and I think my best times are to come," Neuvirth said. "We still have nine games left and we have three good goalies and only one net, so it'll be interesting."
His best stop in the first might have come with just 20 seconds left when Nick Palmieri ripped a slap shot from between the circles that he redirected into the right-wing corner.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale