RALEIGH, N.C. – Eventually, the Washington Capitals will need their Alex Ovechkin-led No. 1 line to score goals in bunches again. But they don’t need to rush their star, not with Michal Neuvirth playing like this.
Neuvirth stopped 29 shots for his first NHL shutout, and the Capitals beat Carolina 3-0 on Wednesday night to spoil the Hurricanes’ first game on home ice.
Nicklas Backstrom scored two goals in the third period, including an empty-netter, after Matt Hendricks scored early for the Capitals, who began a three-game road swing by winning their second straight.
But there wasn’t any question that this night belonged to Neuvirth, who’s making the most of his chance with Semyon Varlamov nursing an injured groin.
“(They) probably would have started off equal, and then like anything else, eventually somebody comes to the fore,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of his goaltenders. “But Wally Pipp missed one game at first base, and you know what happened there.”
Pipp was the New York Yankees first baseman who lost his job to the legendary Lou Gehrig after sitting out a game.
The 22-year-old Neuvirth made several highlight-reel stops, first snatching a wrist shot out of the air from Eric Staal, and then stuffing a nifty wraparound backhander from 18-year-old rookie Jeff Skinner. That helped him improve to 6-2 this season.
“I kind of knew (Staal) was right there, and I just tried to get (to the puck) as soon as possible,” Neuvirth said.
Carolina was the last NHL team to play on home ice after opening with seven straight road games, including trips to Russia for an exhibition, Finland for the opener and down the West Coast. By the team’s count, they travelled more than 24,000 kilometres and across 11 time zones.
“We thought we were going to break through with one and get this crowd going, but it was unfortunate that it didn’t happen,” Staal said.
Cam Ward turned aside 30 shots for the Hurricanes, who have lost two of three. His most spectacular save came midway through the second period when he slid across the goalmouth and used his stick to stuff Ovechkin, who was streaking in hard from the left side.
That stop helped extend Ovechkin’s goal drought to five games, though he did assist on Backstrom’s goal with 7:37 left that made it 2-0. Backstrom then flung the puck into an empty net with 1:28 to play.
“For Nicky to get a goal, for Ovie to get an assist, you see them pressing and you see them cheating a little bit, trying to get the offensive goal,” Boudreau said. “Maybe that’ll bring them back to playing like they normally can.”
That goal turned it into a rare blowout for the Capitals, whose previous four wins came by one goal apiece. They were scoreless on the power play for the fourth straight game, and they entered averaging roughly one goal per game fewer than they did last season when they led the league. Those struggles was perhaps best illustrated early when Ward allowed Eric Fehr a wide-open look at the net from point-blank range—and the Washington winger rang the right post.
A pileup in front of the Carolina net wound up leading to the game’s first goal. David Steckel collided with Ward as he passed to Hendricks, who flipped in the puck at 9:13 of the first period for his first goal.
“I didn’t even see” Ward, Steckel said. “I was just going for the tip. I was looking for the puck after it got past their first defenceman in front of me, and I just saw it laying there and figured, ‘Throw it back at the net.'”
The RBC Center crowd screamed for a goaltender interference penalty, but coach Paul Maurice didn’t agree with that. Instead, he was looking for the officials to disallow the goal.
“I didn’t feel (the officials’) argument that Cam was expanding out into the player—in which case the player has the right to his own ice,” Maurice said. “For me, he didn’t. Cam was focused on the shot and their player came into him. So I didn’t agree with the call at all. I didn’t agree with the interpretation. I think he was absolutely wrong.”
NOTES: Washington RW Mike Knuble assisted on both of Backstrom’s goals. … Staal rang the left post during the second period. … Carolina scratched C Jiri Tlusty and C Patrick O’Sullivan.Tlusty was recalled a day earlier from a conditioning stint in Charlotte. … Washington RW Matt Bradley was back in the lineup and skating on the fourth line after missing five games because of a lower-body injury.