"Obviously [Varlamov] wants to be better than me, and I want to be better than him," said Neuvirth during 2010's training camp. "I think we appreciate each other, though, and we could have the best tandem in the league. Who knows what's going to happen."
At first, it seemed Semyon Varlamov would be the starter, being slightly more experienced in the league than Neuvirth and having impressive showings in NHL postseasons. Neuvirth got his chance to shine in net early in the season after Varlamov went down with a groin injury.
The injury kept Varlamov out for over a month, and he was even sent to Hershey for a conditioning stint after he healed. But in Hershey, he had another setback, tweaking his MCL in the last of the three games he played with the Bears.
While Varlamov was out, Neuvirth happily took the starting goaltender title from him, going 8-1-1 with a .894 save percentage and one shutout in his absence. Neuvirth was then named the NHL Rookie of the Month for October, dazzling fans and analysts alike with his technically sound style and stunning glove saves.
Varlamov returned in late November, and he and Neuvirth shared goaltending responsibilities after he came back to Washington. As the season wound down, the question became: Which goalie would start the playoffs?
Some fans assumed that Varlamov would start. Two years ago, Varlamov replaced Jose Theodore in the first round of the playoffs, and made headlines with his game-saving heroics. However, Neuvirth has won three Calder Cups with the Hershey Bears, and has been undefeated in each of the 14 (now 15) playoff rounds he's played in North America.
"I've been unbeaten in playoff series, so it's going to be a good challenge," Neuvirth said of the playoffs in March. "[Varlamov] was the starting goalie for the last couple playoffs. You never know what's going to happen, but I'm going to be ready. I want to take his job from him."
Varlamov had a shorter injury hiatus in March, and Neuvirth stepped up to the challenge. Coach Bruce Boudreau seemed to be hinting to his playoff goaltender decision when talking about Neuvirth while Varlamov was hurt, saying, "The thing [Neuvirth's] done best all year is bounce back. He doesn't let things bother him. Sometimes goalies let things bother them and let things fester for a couple days, but he still comes out, practices hard and does what he has to do."
Neuvirth's calm demeanor may have played into the decision to start him in the postseason. In the playoffs more than ever, it's important for a team to have a goaltender who's not easily rattled. It means that opponents can't get into his head and beat him again and again.
Boudreau announced the decision to put Neuvirth in net for Game 1 of the playoff series against the New York Rangers, and Neuvirth was excited for the opportunity to prove that his postseason success in the AHL can translate to the NHL.
"I'm not nervous," Neuvirth said after the decision was made. "I'm pretty excited. It's a good challenge and good opportunity for me."
In Washington's first-round series against the Rangers, Neuvirth demonstrated that Boudreau was right to start him. He was easily the MVP of the series, making big saves and ignoring taunts from Rangers who tried to get into his head. In five games, Neuvirth never allowed more than three goals, and had a 2-0 shutout in Game 2.
Neuvirth is among the leading goaltenders in playoff statistics with a .936 save percentage and just 1.62 goals against average. Neuvirth's teammates again pointed to his calmness as being the key to their success.
"Most goaltenders that play well in the playoffs are very calm, collected, don't get rattled, and just play the way they normally play," Jason Arnott said after the first-round series-concluding Game 5. "And [Neuvirth] did that this series."
Most NHL teams build their franchise around a goaltender, to the point that a goalie's name becomes synonymous with the team. Think Henrik Lundqvist, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, and Ryan Miller.
Before the season began, Neuvirth signed a two-year contract extension with the Capitals. Should he pull off a long post-season run this year, you can bet that Michal Neuvirth will be that franchise goaltender for the Capitals.