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Neuvirth stops the bleeding for slumping Capitals

by Corey Masisak /
WASHINGTON -- Goaltending was not one of the leading reasons for the Washington Capitals' recent eight-game losing streak, but both Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov struggled at times during the slump.

Considering how fragile the team's collective psyche appeared to be at times during the stretch -- something coach Bruce Boudreau talked about at length -- one more goal allowed Sunday night against the Ottawa Senators might have been a disaster.

Instead the Capitals were able to maintain a one-goal lead for the final 33 minutes and scratch out a 3-2 victory against the Senators to end nearly three weeks of torment. Neuvirth, who made 17 saves in the final two periods and helped the Capitals kill off three third-period power plays for Ottawa, proved to be the guy in net who was able to help end the slide.

He might have regained a greater share of the workload for Washington in the near future by doing so.

"That's what we need," defenseman Mike Green said. "I talked to Mike after the Ottawa game and told him we need him to step up and be consistent and he has been. It's not like he hasn't been. We need someone who wants to be that No. 1 guy and then we'll go from there. [Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov] are both great goaltenders and whoever is in the net we're very comfortable with them, but we need a guy who is going to be consistent that we can get used to playing in front of."

Added David Steckel: "I think it was important. If you look at some of the past games, we've given up goals in bunches quickly. I think if they could put an end to that, it kind of gave us confidence. [It's hard] when you know your team isn't scoring goals and it is all on you. So at the same time he's asking for some goal support and it is kind of a two-way street. He gave us a bit of a stand and we responded."

Boudreau told Neuvirth before the team's eighth straight loss in Boston that he was going to play against Ottawa, and after a bit of a shaky first 20 minutes at Scotiabank Place, he responded. Neuvirth ran his personal streak to five consecutive great periods when he turned aside 34 of 35 shots in a 5-1 win over the Devils.

Both of Washington's goalies had a chance to be the guy who got the Capitals out of the team's funk. Varlamov played well last Wednesday against Anaheim but yielded an overtime goal to Ryan Getzlaf. Neuvirth has helped them to a two-game winning streak and will likely be in net Thursday when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Verizon Center in a preview matchup of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, set for New Year's Day at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

"It is confidence," Boudreau said. "In the Ottawa game after they got the first two goals and he'd given one away and was not steady with his puck-handling, he had to battle to get to the 3-2 win but he did. I thought yesterday -- where he had been scored on early, then he shuts the door -- you could just tell in the first period that he was shutting the door and he wasn't going to let those early goals in. That all comes from the success the game before.

"I'm sure when [Varlamov] gets in there the same thing is going to happen. It is going to be a battle and hopefully it is a close game that we win, but that will give him all the confidence in the world the next night."
Neuvirth is now 14-6-2 for the Capitals and has played 23 of the team's 36 games. This season began with Varlamov expected to battle him for playing time, but Neuvirth has received the bulk of the work because of Varlamov's dealings with a groin injury.

The Czech Republic native is second in the League in wins among rookie goaltenders -- one behind Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky. In the middle of the recent losing streak, Boudreau said he had adopted a "win and you're in" policy for his precocious netminders, but neither of them were winning at the time.

If Neuvirth keeps playing as well as he has the past five periods, he may earn the first extended run of starts this season when both of Washington's netminders are healthy.

"We're helping him out a little more but he's been making some huge saves," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Last night if you looked at the end of the game there -- they were taking some one-timers on the power play and he was already across ready for the one-timer before it came. That's when you know he is on and he is seeing the play well. It is really nice to see."

Added Neuvirth: "I'm just focusing on the next game and I don't really care what's the schedule after that. It is going to be a big game tomorrow and I'm going to be ready. … It is tough when nothing is going well. You can feel the pressure from the fans and from the media. It wasn't an easy time, but you battle through that. We've won two games in a row and tomorrow is a big test. We want to keep this going."
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