Friday, April 1, 2011, 2:39 p.m.
By Ben Raby
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Michal Neuvirth has been described as a quiet kid with a calm demeanor. Hes not easily rattled or fazed on the road, and he rarely gets down after allowing a bad goal. His teammates will tell you Neuvirth is as cool as they come and always in control.
But the soft-spoken Neuvirth, who at age 23 is the oldest of the Capitals' three goalies, shrugs it off and says hes just good at hiding his emotions.
Its not always easy, Neuvirth says of being the No. 1 goalie come springtime. You have to go through tough times, and youve got to handle the pressure in the playoffs.
In his first four years in North America, Neuvirth has handled postseason pressure better than most.
In 2007, Neuvirth went 14-4 and led the Ontario Hockey Leagues Plymouth Whalers to their first OHL title. Two years later, he was the American Hockey Leagues playoff MVP and the Hershey Bears were Calder Cup champs. One year after that, Neuvirth backstopped the Bears to a second straight title.
He was probably the reason that we won, says Karl Alzner, who saw Neuvirth compile a 30-10 record in the past two AHL playoffs.
He made every single save that you can imagine and even the ones he wasnt expected to make. He battled hard, and you can see after those playoff games he was dog-tired because hed given it everything he had. I think thats what you want from your goaltender.
In total, Neuvirth has started 14 career playoff series. His teams have won each series.
I think hes just vying to start in this years playoffs, Bruce Boudreau joked when told Neuvirth was discussing his playoff success one day after practice.
Pressure doesnt affect him, so thats good, Boudreau says. I think thats a great number winning all 14 playoff series, but Id sure like it to be 18-for-18. That would make me feel a lot better.
For that to happen, Neuvirth would have to lead the Capitals to the Stanley Cup, and for all of his playoff experience, none has come in the NHL. Semyon Varlamov, his chief competitor for the Caps' starting role, has appeared in 19 NHL playoff games, including three Game 7s.
For me as a Hershey Bear last year and two years ago, there was a lot of pressure on us," Neuvirth says. "Everyone was expecting us to win a cup, and I think its the same thing here.
I think I can play under that pressure, and I dont think there will be such a big difference between those playoffs. In the AHL or NHL, you need to win four games in a series to make the next round.
Boudreau says that to have Neuvirths playoff success at any level, you have to have ice in your veins. His combined junior and minor league playoff record is 51-16 with five shutouts.
Standing on his head is a term you use a lot for a goaltender, Jay Beagle says, but it was really true when it came to Neuvy in both years in the playoffs. Hes a great goalie throughout the year, but he really steps it up in the playoffs. Hes a playoff player, and thats what you want.
Neuvirth has faced elimination only twice, both times in the 2009 East Division finals against the Wilkes-BarreScranton Penguins. The Bears trailed the series 3-2 before Neuvirth picked up a pair of 3-0 shutouts in games 6 and 7. The Bears won the series, and eight wins later they were AHL champions.
The playoffs are a pretty emotional time, says Tyler Sloan, Neuvirths teammate on the 2009 Bears, and just like here, he had a chill mentality, and I think thats important for a goalie in the playoffs at any level.
Hes a very easygoing guy, Alzner says. He doesnt let the hype or the pressure of overtime get to him, and he just plays the exact same game every time and thats a really good quality.
Alzner has seen Neuvirth shine in playoff overtimes before. He went 10-2 in overtimes the past two years in Hershey and is 15-3 lifetime in playoff OTs.
What I can remember most is probably that he had timely saves, Sloan says. At timely moments, hed just make a huge save that could have been a turning point in the game for the other team. That was probably the biggest thing.
Neuvirth has started and won more games this season than Varlamov and Braden Holtby combined. He was the NHLs Rookie of the Month in October while Varlamov was still sidelined with a preseason groin injury, and he has set franchise records for wins and shutouts in a rookie season.
He hasnt officially locked up the starters role for Game 1 of the playoffs, but Neuvirth is ready for the challenge.
Its a big deal, he says of being named the playoff starter. I think every big player likes to play big games. I can play under pressure and I think I proved it in the AHL and OHL and I think I have the capability to do it in the NHL, too.