WASHINGTON – When he found out he was getting his first start in seven weeks, Michal Neuvirth felt the same way he did before his NHL debut.
Anxiety. Nerves. Butterflies.
That first start, five seasons ago, went well for the Washington Capitals goalie and so did Friday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs as he made 32 saves in a 3-2 victory.
“I was nervous, couldn’t really sleep before the game,” Neuvirth said. “I was feeling like I was as nervous as my first NHL game. My girlfriend told me just do what you do and try to be good.”
Neuvirth was just that, giving up just two goals, both on deflections. In his first NHL game, Neuvirth had 31 saves in a 5-1 victory over Tampa Bay.
“I thought he played a great game, I really did,” Washington coach Adam Oates said. “First period, I think he had some shots that allowed him to get into the game, which is good for him. After the second goal, he made a fantastic save that saved the game for us.”
Neuvirth’s work paved the way for Joel Ward to score the go-ahead goal with just over 8 minutes left in the third period, and Alex Ovechkin added a goal and an assist. Nicklas Backstrom also scored as the Capitals won on back-to-back nights for the fourth time this year.
It was the fourth straight loss for Toronto after a 3-2 victory over Detroit on Jan. 1 in the Winter Classic, and the Maple Leafs have been outscored 21-7 in the defeats. James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel each had a goal and an assist.
Coming off a 6-1 loss Thursday night at Carolina, Toronto saw some positives in the defeat.
“This might be one of the better games we’ve played in a month. We showed desperation. We showed that we care,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “We’ve been begging, pleading, kicking, kissing, whatever we can do to try and find a way to play with some confidence. It seems like we’ve squeezed our sticks here. It’s mind boggling.”
Kessel’s team-high 21st goal gave Toronto a short-lived 2-1 lead in the third when his shot went off the stick of Washington defenceman Karl Alzner and over the shoulder of Nuevirth.
The Caps got the equalizer in similar fashion with 15:24 left as Backstrom’s severe-angle shot went off the skate of Maple Leafs centre Jay McClement and past Jonathan Bernier (32 saves) for his 11th goal.
“A little lucky,” Oates said. “Their second goal, Alzy breaks a stick on that deflection. A little lucky, so we’re even.”
Ward’s winner, his 13th of the season, came with 8:10 left, 6 seconds after Toronto had killed a penalty, as he fired a slap shot from 15 feet out on a pass from Marcus Johansson.
“I was a little upset at first cause the way it kind of came off my stick,” Ward said. “But I kind of got enough to actually go in.”
After that, Neuvirth kept Washington in command, making his final save with 12 seconds left.
The last time the 25-year-old was set to play for the Capitals, on Nov. 29, he suffered a leg injury in warmups. He had not suited up for a game since. With the Caps playing their second of five games in a span of seven days, Braden Holtby struggling and rookie Philipp Grubauer coming off a taxing 4-3 win Thursday night at Tampa Bay, Neuvirth made his first start since Nov. 22.
In the absence of Neuvirth, Grubauer (6-2-3) emerged as perhaps the team’s most reliable goalie, prompting Neuvirth to request a trade last month.
“I’ve been watching a lot of hockey from the press box,” Neuvirth said. “I haven’t seen the puck for some time. Probably would be tough if I get scored on in the first couple minutes, but I didn’t want to think about it.”
NOTES: Washington D John Erskine had an eventful second period, drawing a pair of penalties for fighting. The scraps were against Cody Franson and Colton Orr.