On Saturday night against the Gwinnett Gladiators, Michal Neuvirth covered a puck far outside the blue paint, but when told by the referee to move it along, simply stayed still. He received a delay of game penalty, but he had no choice — he was in too much pain to move.
The 20-year-old had a groin pull — the first he’s ever had, he said after the game.
Neuvirth didn’t start this game under normal circumstances. Neuvirth had been with the AHL Hershey Bears, but got sent back down when Stingray Bobby Goepfert suffered a concussion. Neuvirth arrived at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in foggy suburban Atlanta just 10 minutes before warmups began.
Because of his late arrival, Neuvirth wasn’t able to get a good stretch, which he thought was a major contributor to the groin pull. The precipitating event was a Gwinnett player running into him while following up a shot at the beginning of the third period.
"After that I felt alright until a couple shifts later and I was like ‘yeah, I’ve got to change,’" he said.
Limping after the game, he said that he was told by the doctor and trainer that how he feels tomorrow will determine how serious the injury is.
Neuvirth’s exit from the game after 42 minutes meant that emergency backup goaltender John Havrilack had to come in. Havrilack, a men’s league full-in that the Stingrays brought along, saved all 10 shots he faced.
Up two levels, the Capitals recently dressed a non-professional in a game as well, though he didn’t get to play. Ironically, dressing for that NHL game could have been Neuvirth’s opportunity under different circumstances. Neuvirth has the pedigree to step right into a higher league, as a second-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2006.
Despite the success he’s had at the ECHL level as a rookie, Neuvirth still categorizes the season he’s had as a tough one, with all the moving around he’s done. When an AHL team couldn’t be found for him at the beinning of the year, he tried to go to Trinec of the Czech league in his home country, but there was some issue with paperwork that prevented him from playing there. Neuvirth’s English is still pretty rough around the edges, but he wasn’t sure what happened in either language.
"It was kind of weird, I don’t really understand," he said about the paperwork problem. "[Capitals GM] George McPhee called me and he made me come over here."
He returned to South Carolina where he went on to post top numbers. He now stands at 6-4-0 with a 1.90 GAA (third in the league) and .932 save percentage (fourth in the league). His goaltending partner Goepfert has even better numbers, but before assigning the credit to the South Carolina defense, it should be pointed out that the Stingrays do give up about 29 shots per game. The goaltenders are doing more than pulling their weight.
Though every player wants to be playing at the highest level possible, Neuvirth is genuinely happy to have been recently named to the ECHL All-Star Game.
"It’s a really nice thing," he said. "It’s going to be my first all-star game ever so I’m pretty excited about that."
Neuvirth’s numbers in the OHL weren’t shabby either, playing for Plymouth, Windsor and Oshawa.
In Hershey this year, he played in three games, with a 1-2-0 record, a 4.67 GAA and .839 save percentage. Seven of the 14 goals he gave up were on Friday night at Providence.
"During the Christmas break I didn’t really do anything," Neuvirth said. "I got called up to the AHL and had one practice before my debut in the AHL, so it was kind of tough. But I got my first AHL win so I’m glad I did that. But the game yesterday, bad things happened and I just put that behind me."
He wasn’t expecting to get called up to Hershey because he knew that the Capitals were still looking for another AHL team to loan him to, and if he played for Hershey, it would ruin any loan arrangement per AHL rules. Neuvirth expected Goepfert to go to Hershey for Daren Machesney, who was leaving for the Spengler Cup, but then Simeon Varlamov got hurt so both Neuvirth and Goepfert made the trip.
Neuvirth has recently been keeping an eye on the World Junior Championships, and was happy to see that the Slovaks beat Team USA, even though the his Czechs are rivals of the Slovaks. He said he always cheers for the worst team, the underdog.
Like any rookie, Neuvirth has to carry bags to the bus with the Stingrays, though his groin issue will put a temporary hold on that. And like every Stingray rookie this year, he had to dress up for the rookie party — in women’s clothing. The 6’1 player admitted to wearing high heels and a tiger-print skirt, then decided he had said too much.