Holtby was not sharp in the first two games
Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth knew his time would come this season. He learned teammate Braden Holtby would get the first crack in net in a preseason meeting with new coach Adam Oates. But with a compressed NHL schedule thanks to the lockout, both goalies will be needed in the remaining 46 games.
Neuvirth's first chance comes Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, Oates announced after Wednesday's practice at Kettler Iceplex. The 24-year-old hasn't played a game since Dec. 30 when he was still in Europe with his club team, Sparta Praha.
"I feel cold, but, you know, this is job I pick, and I gotta handle it," Neuvirth said. "I'm trying to stay positive and happy. I felt good during the practice today, and I'm ready to go."
|Canadiens at Capitals|
|When » Thursday, 7 p.m.|
|Where » Verizon Center|
|TV » CSN|
Neuvirth played in 24 games with his hometown club in the Czech Republic. But that doesn't mean he's necessarily rust-free heading into the game against Montreal -- a team he has played well against throughout his career with a 4-1-0 record, 1.82 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
In fact, Caps goalie coach Dave Prior has cautioned Neuvirth about the "European hangover." That isn't related to alcohol, though. In the Czech Extraliga, Neuvirth could afford to sit back in his net. But because shooters are better and more accurate in the NHL, a goalie has to challenge them more often.
"I worked at it. The puck's hitting me," Neuvirth said. "So that means I'm in the good positioning."
Now he will have to see how that translates from practice to an NHL game behind a defense that is still finding its way under Oates. The Caps have allowed 10 goals in two games, including five on the power play. Holtby wasn't sharp either night, but he didn't get a whole lot of help, either. With games upcoming against Montreal (Thursday), New Jersey (Friday) and Buffalo (Sunday), there are plenty of minutes to spare in net -- and all over the ice, really.
"We've got a lot of hockey in a short span of time. It's gonna be a lot of skates for those guys, a lot of minutes," Oates said. "Just trying to identify conditioning versus fatigue. We got a game Sunday afternoon, and that's three in four days with a practice in between. That's a lot of hockey. Not that it's necessarily the perfect formula, but it's the one we're going with."
And his team will need Neuvirth. Overshadowed last year by veteran Tomas Vokoun -- who was traded to Pittsburgh after an injury-plagued season -- and Holtby's brilliant Stanley Cup playoff performance, it's easy to forget Neuvirth appeared in 48 games in 2010-11 and was the postseason starter. He's ready to go -- even if his teammates are far from midseason form. That excuse didn't hold for Holtby and won't for Neuvirth if he has a bad night against the Canadiens.
"It was really tough on [Holtby]. He gave up a lot of goals, and it's not easy," Neuvirth said. "It was tough start for him. But I think he play well [Tuesday against Winnipeg]. We've got to play better as a team."