ARLINGTON, Va. – It’s a goalie matchup that hardly seems like a fair fight. The New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist started more games this season (67) than the Washington Capitals’ Michal Neuvirth has started in his NHL career (64).
Lundqvist is also a veteran of 30 Stanley Cup playoff starts, while Neuvirth will be making his NHL post-season debut.
Neuvirth confirmed Tuesday that he will be in net when the top-seeded Capitals host the eighth-seeded Rangers on Wednesday night in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference series.
“It’s a big challenge,” said the 23-year-old Czech. “But I think I can handle it.”
Neuvirth beat out Semyon Varlamov for the job, hardly a surprise after a regular season in which Neuvirth posted 27 wins to Varlamov’s 11. This was supposed to be the year of a great competition between the two young goalies, but both were hurt so much that the starter was often chosen by default. When both were hurt, Braden Holtby would get the call from the minors and put up better stats than both of them.
But Neuvirth was solid down the stretch, winning five of his last six starts to finish 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average. Still, coach Bruce Boudreau has had little patience with goalies in previous playoff series, and he’s already made it clear that he will again make a switch if his starter is struggling.
With no NHL playoff experience to speak of, Neuvirth was left to tout his back-to-back titles with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ AHL affiliate.
“It was a lot of pressure. The buildings were packed,” Neuvirth said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that much different between the two playoffs. Obviously, NHL is NHL. Down in Hershey there was a lot of pressure on us because everybody expected us to win. Same as here, everyone expects us to win, and I’ve got no problem with it.”
Boudreau also thinks the Hershey experience should count for something.
“He hasn’t been through this, but he’s been through championship series and everything else,” the coach said. “He’s ready. I don’t have to say anything to him. As a matter of fact, I’ve tried not to say anything to him for fear that it would get him wound up or nervous or whatever. He’s played really big in big games for us and we’ve got a lot of belief in him.”
Asked about Lundqvist, Neuvirth had an answer for those who might the consider the goaltender matchup to be lopsided.
“He may be the best goalie in the league,” Neuvirth said, “but I think our shooters are better than theirs.”