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Neuvirth has carried minor-league swagger to Caps

by Dan Rosen
The 2010-11 season is already full of intriguing story lines, but at the quarter mark of the campaign, standout performances by goaltenders certainly deserve top billing. This week, focuses on some of those goalies in the spotlight, from the amazing first impression of Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington's Michal Neuvirth to the redemptions of Montreal's Carey Price and Boston's Tim Thomas and the continued stellar play of Detroit's Jimmy Howard.

NEWARK -- Rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth has been a lot of things for the Washington Capitals so far this season.

A surprise is not one of them.

"We know he can play," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "We trust him."

"He's had a lot of success down in the minors and it's a big transition to do it in the pros, but he's handled himself well," added defenseman Mike Green. "He's not a surprise to me at all."

Neuvirth joined the Capitals on a full-time basis this season after winning back-to-back championships in the American Hockey League for the Hershey Bears while his counterpart, Semyon Varlamov, was building himself an NHL resume.

He was well known in AHL circles and looked upon as a future star inside the Washington front office. But, everywhere else, Neuvirth was pegged as the little known Czech who was going to play second fiddle to Varlamov.

Once Varlamov -- injured early in the season to give Neuvirth a chance -- returns to the Capitals on a full-time basis, he may find himself playing second fiddle to Neuvirth.

Washington's other young Euro goalie has been good enough to backstop his team to the top of the Eastern Conference despite an unexpectedly heavy workload due to Varlamov's nagging groin injury that has kept him out from all but two games this season.

Neuvirth is 12-3-1 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. He has one shutout.

"The guy is just so good at the basics," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner told "His positioning is really good, he moves really well and he reacts terribly fast. You see his glove hand? It's pretty amazing and he brings that every night. When you have such good fundamentals, you're always on."

Alzner and defense partner John Carlson know Neuvirth better than anyone on the Capitals' roster. They were the top defense pairing playing in front of Neuvirth in each of the past two AHL playoff runs, so it holds a little more water when they insist Neuvirth iss the same goalie now as he was then.

"We know what he's going to be doing out there and I think he's gaining that with the rest of the guys on the team and that's huge," Alzner said. "He's a guy that definitely needs to be here. There is nothing else he can prove in any other league except this one, and he's doing that now."

Neuvirth hasn't had Varlamov to push him for most of the season, but he's still playing with a chip on his shoulder.

It's been there for quite some time.

For the past two years he's been hearing about the great futures of other young goalies like Los Angeles' Jonathan Bernier, Vancouver's Cory Schneider, Boston's Tuukka Rask and even his own teammate, Varlamov.

Yet, all Neuvirth has done the past two years was best Bernier, Schneider and Rask in Calder Cup playoff series. And, by virtue of his play and Varlamov's injury, he's taken over as the No. 1 goalie on arguably the best team in the NHL.

Bernier, Schneider, Rask and Varlamov are, for now, trailing in Neuvirth's wake.

"He's been against these goalies that have been sort of brought to the NHL quicker, but I don't know if they've got any more experience or been through any more pressure than him because of playing for the championships," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Oh, let's not forget about those championships. There is no better way to measure the resolve of a goalie than how he does when facing pressure.

Neuvirth clearly can handle it well.

He went a combined 30-10 with a .927 save percentage to win the Calder Cup in back-to-back years.

"You're going through championship seasons where you have to play great," Boudreau said. "It's not the crowds that provide the pressure; it's going through seven months to try to win a championship. And, he did the same thing in junior, taking Windsor to the Memorial Cup. He's game-ready."

Like Alzner, Green marvels at Neuvirth's poise.

"You just never know when a new guy is coming into the net and he's been very confident and composed," he said. "That's something you have to admire in a young goaltender. As a defenseman, he makes it really easy for us. He covers up pucks and there's not a lot of rebounds. There's no panic and no confusion with him."

Alzner said Neuvirth is the same way off the ice.

"He's just so even-keeled," he said. "Nothing rattles him."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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