The roller coaster ride that has been Michal Neuvirth's career with the Washington Capitals has definitely continued here in 2013.
Most Caps' fans will recall that Neuvirth first staked his claim as the Caps' goalie of the future during the 2011 playoffs. He was absolutely magnificent during the Caps 4-1 series win over the New York Rangers in the 2011 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
He then, like the rest of the team, came up rather small in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as the Caps were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Over that nine-game stretch, Neuvirth had a 2.34 goals against average and a .912 save percentage (ESPN).
Last season, Neuvirth played in a backup role to Tomas Vokoun. He played in 38 games and had a 13-13-5 record (ESPN). He had a 2.82 goals against average and a .903 save percentage with three shutouts.
As the playoffs approached, and with Vokoun dealing with an injury, it seemed as though the Caps would have to lean heavily on Neuvirth once again if the team was going to have any chance at winning that elusive Stanley Cup.
But, Neuvirth was injured as well, Braden Holtby got the start in net and staked his own claim as being the Caps next big thing in net.
Neuvirth never bought into the hype surrounding Holtby though.
During the summer of 2012, Neuvirth made some rather unflattering comments about the Caps' presumed new superstar goaltender.
In an interview conducted with Czech website iSport.cz, and translated by several sites (including Russianmachineneverbreaks.com) Neuvirth said the following about Braden Holtby:
It’s true that until now, I have never been an official number one. But I have played just over a hundred games in NHL. That’s nothing. I’m starting the season sure that I want to play forty/fifty games and I am really sure that I have the weakest competition (Braden Holtby) I’ve ever had. I will try to be number one goalie this season. Finally!
Obviously, Neuvirth was throwing down the gauntlet and it would not take long before he got his chance to prove his worth. After Holtby struggled so badly in the first two games, coach Adam Oates turned to Neuvirth in what, to a certain extent, seemed to be a "put-up or shut-up" moment.
The first game did not go well. The Caps were routed by the Montreal Canadiens (ESPN), on home ice, 4-1. Neuvirth gave up four goals on just 22 shots for a .818 save percentage. He did, however, make some key stops that prevented the final score from being uglier than it was.
But the next game against the New Jersey Devils was a much stronger effort from Neuvirth. The Caps rallied from two goals down in the third period to tie the game at 2-2 before ultimately losing in overtime (ESPN).
Neuvirth played incredibly well against the Devils as he stopped 32 of 35 shots for a .914 save percentage. In overtime, he was nothing short of spectacular as he stopped seven of eight shots and made some tremendous saves up until Ilya Kovalchuk's game winner, a shot that would have beaten most NHL goaltenders.
Coach Oates rode the hot hand and played Neuvirth in the Caps next game against the Buffalo Sabres. Neuvirth responded by leading the Caps to their first win of the season, 3-2 over the Sabres (ESPN).
Neuvirth played well again stopping 22 of the 24 shots he faced for a .917 save percentage.
At that point, it really seemed as though Neuvirth was in firm control of the Caps goaltending job. But, as with most things related to the Caps, the wheels kind of fell off from there.
In the next game against the Ottawa Senators, Neuvirth and the Caps could not hold a 2-0 lead and fell to the Sens, 3-2.
Neuvirth played pretty well in that game stopping 24 of the 27 shots he faced for a .889 save percentage.
Neuvirth would get the next start against Toronto at the Air Canada Centre. Once again Neuvirth and the Caps would blow a third period lead allowing Toronto to rally and claim a 3-2 win for the Leafs.
Neuvirth played very well in this game as the Leafs really dominated the Caps. Neuvirth kept the Caps in it by stopping 37 of the 40 shots he faced for a .925 save percentage. Yet, it was still not enough.
Holtby played the next two games and Neuvirth was called upon to stop the bleeding in a rematch with the Maple Leafs. In this game though, Neuvirth and Tom Poti had a major communication error that led to the first Toronto goal.
The Caps never recovered and Toronto won, again, by the final of 3-2. Neuvirth was not as strong in this game as he only faced 21 shots and could only stop 18 of them for a .857 save percentage. The game winning goal by Korbinian Holzer is the type of shot that Neuvirth has to turn away.
And then came Thursday night in Pittsburgh. After a solid first period, Neuvirth gave up two goals and was pulled by Coach Oates. While the second goal allowed to Pascal Dupuis was somewhat soft, it did not seem like the type of egregious display of net-minding that would warrant getting yanked.
But that is what happened and now the questions as to whether Adam Oates still has confidence in Neuvirth have to be asked.
For the 2013 season thus far, Neuvirth has a 1-4-1 record. He has a 3.05 goals-against- average which ranks him 30th in the NHL. He has a .889 save percentage which has him ranked 32nd.
Statistically, he is marginally better than Holtby. But whether Coach Oates still has confidence in him is the big question.
Which goalie gets the start Saturday, at home, against the Florida Panthers, might shed some light on the whole subject.