Reflections from a reporter born in 1987

Holtby bails out Neuvirth, Caps survive lapses again

November 6, 2010 - 05:00 AM
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Carlson (middle), Alzner and Fehr celebrate Carlson's game-winning goal. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Capitals retreated to the Verizon Center dressing room after 40 minutes of play Friday night having made a statement. They were up 3-0 on the Boston Bruins, who had outscored the Caps 7-2 in sweeping a home-and-home series from Washington just two weeks before. So thorough was the throttling that the Capitals were outshooting the Bruins 25-9 after two periods.

9:51 into the third period, Bruins left winger Shawn Thornton put a backhand shot past Michal Neuvirth to tie the game at 3-3. Immediately, Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau pulled Neuvirth, October's NHL Rookie of the Month, and replaced him with Braden Holtby, a 21-year-old who had never set a skate into a regular season NHL game.

Just like that, the statement was rebuffed.

"We have to get over this hump," said defenseman Mike Green, who missed the first two games against Boston this season with a stinger and had a goal, an assist and three blocked shots Friday. "We have to get rid of this old habit."

After allowing a 3-1 lead to turn into a 4-3 deficit Wednesday night in an eventual 5-4 shootout win over Toronto, the Capitals played their most complete period of the season, as goals from Tyler Sloan, Green, and Alexander Semin opened up the three-goal margin over Boston in the second.

"Because of the competition, and the score at the beginning of the period, I thought [the second] was our best period," Boudreau said. "I feel great about the fact that we played a tremendous first two periods."

The third was a different story, as two silly penalties (a hook by Jason Chimera and an interference call on John Erskine) led to two Boston power play goals. Then Thornton tied it, and Neuvirth was done.

"I thought he didn't look good on goals two and three, and he kept looking over [at the bench]," said Boudreau, explaining his rationale for pulling Neuvirth immediately after Boston's tying goal. It is hard to see how Neuvirth could have stopped Nathan Horton's power-play blast that made it 3-2, though Thornton's breakaway attempt definitely appeared savable (indeed, Neuvirth has made those types of saves before this season).

Which raises the question: Have Neuvirth's relatively underwhelming performances in the last two games (7 goals allowed on 42 shots) been a symptom of mental fatigue?

"He might be a little tired," Boudreau said when asked the question Friday night. "He's not used to playing under this type of pressure." Boudreau has previously cited Neuvirth's record as a two-time Calder Cup-winning goalie as evidence of his ability to handle the big moment, but for the first time Friday, the coach raised the question of whether the rookie needed a break from the grind of the NHL schedule. Neuvirth has seen the ice in all 13 games the Capitals have played so far, and started in 12 of them.

"In the American League [AHL], you'd have three games in a row, Friday, Saturday, Sunday," said Boudreau, who coached three AHL teams before coming to the Capitals. "He'd play in probably two of those three games, then Monday and Tuesday would have been days off. Here, the schedule's every other day. And he doesn't want to take [practice] days off, either."

The workload Boudreau has placed on Neuvirth is mostly the result of an unfortunate circumstance -- namely, the fact that Semyon Varlamov will likely be out for at least another week due to his nagging groin injury. But it also leaves the head coach stuck between a rock and a hard place as his team prepares for the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon. On one side is Neuvirth's struggles, on the other side is the fact that Holtby only had to make four saves in the 10:09 he was in.

"It might have been the easiest win of my life," Holtby said afterward. "But I'll take it."

Three Stars

Mike Green-For playing 25 shifts, scoring one goal, assisting on another, and blocking three shots in the process. For important games like these, the Caps had better pray he stays healthy.

John Carlson- For also playing 25 shifts, scoring the game-winner, and blocking three shots. The campaign for the Calder Trophy continues apace.

Braden Holtby-For recording his first NHL win despite being thrown into trying circumstances. "I didn't know if it was fair to Braden to put him in his first game with 10 minutes to go against Boston in a tie, but he did outstanding," said Boudreau. Or, as Holtby put it: "When coach asked me if I was ready to play, I was like 'Pardon?'"

Turning Point

The face-off win by Boyd Gordon back to Eric Fehr, who put it back to Carlson for the latter's laser from the point that gave Washington a 4-3 lead with 6:35 left. Washington only won 35 of the 77 face-offs taken last night (45%), but Gordon, who won 10 of his 15 face-offs, picked a great one to win.

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