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BATTLE OF THE BLUE PAINT

by Chris Ryndak / Buffalo Sabres

Jhonas Enroth (Credit: Bill Wippert)

For the first time in about 10 years, there’s a competition in the crease.

Both Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth want to be the Buffalo Sabres’ No. 1 goaltender and this month’s training camp will prove to be a big test for each of them.

While their locker stalls may be side by side, one goalie's name will end up above the other's on the depth chart when all is said and done.

“They both want to be No. 1 which is a good thing. That’s one good thing about training camp is you battle,” coach Ted Nolan said. “You put them in, you see how training camp goes and you let the war begin to see who wants it.”

Enroth, drafted by the Sabres in the second round in 2006 (46th overall), had been behind Ryan Miller on the depth chart, preparing as the backup and waiting for his chance.

When Miller was traded on Feb. 28, the opportunity for Enroth finally arrived. However, he wasn’t able to fully take advantage of it because he succumbed to a knee injury during a game on March 16. Now fully healthy, he’s ready for the new season.

“This is the chance I’ve been wanting pretty much for my whole career,” he said. “You always want to be the guy and obviously I haven’t really been the guy on this level yet.

“When I was the guy in the American [Hockey] League and back home [in Sweden], I found that I really enjoyed it. That’s what I’ve been working for for my whole career”

Neuvirth was picked 34th overall in that same draft by the Capitals and was acquired by Buffalo in a trade back in March. In Washington, he was embroiled in goaltending battles with other draft picks like Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby so being in a competition for the starting role is nothing new for him.

With the Sabres, he started only two games, stopping 93 of 98 shots, but was unable to play more due to injuries to his hip and groin. His season ended after a game on March 13 but he’s now back to 100 percent as well.

“This is a fresh start and a new opportunity. I’ve put the last two years behind me and I’m looking forward to this season,” he said. “I’m feeling good and I’m ready to go.”

Being from the same draft class, the two goaltenders played against each other growing up with their respective national teams – Enroth for Sweden and Neuvirth for the Czech Republic – and faced off in the AHL as well.

While both goalies were rehabbing, they’d carpool to the doctor’s office and had a chance to bond. Their good rapport started pretty much as soon as Neuvirth arrived.

“[Enroth] was the first guy I was texting when I showed up in Buffalo. ‘What time is the skate tomorrow?’” Neuvirth said. “He’s a great guy and I respect him as a goalie.”

With the season being so long, it’s more than likely that the depth chart could flip a few times before all is said and done due to who has the hot hand. The competition could very well play out deep into the regular season.

“It’s going to be a healthy competition,” Nolan said. “It’s not going to be, ‘I’m going to try to be better than you because I’m better.’ It’s going to be, whoever’s better is going to be better for the team.”

They’ll both hope to learn from new goaltending coach Arturs Irbe as well. Enroth has had only a few conversations with Irbe so far, but Neuvirth spent time with the former NHL All-Star when Irbe served as his goalie coach when both were in Washington.

Back in 2010-11, Neuvirth won 27 games and posted a .914 save percentage and a 2.45 goals against average under Irbe’s tutelage.

“I trust him and I feel like he trusts in me,” Neuvirth said. “He’s been in the NHL for so long so he knows what it takes to be a No. 1 and we just talked about goaltending stuff and how you handle the pressure.”

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