PHILADELPHIA — On a gorgeous afternoon in late June, Jakub Voracek (right, in photo above) waded through the crowd of tennis fans outside the main entrance to Wimbledon and spotted a familiar face. He was vacationing at the tournament with his parents and he planned to spend the next three days watching matches on the grassy green courts. As he searched for the table to pick up accreditations, Voracek stopped. “Oh my god,” the Philadelphia Flyers forward thought, “that looks like Michal Neuvirth.”
In attendance to support his then-girlfriend, Kristyna Pliskova, Neuvirth soon took full advantage of the chance encounter. With unrestricted free agency about to begin, the 27-year-old goaltender had already fielded interest from several teams, including Philadelphia, during the open interview window and he had spent the next 15 or so minutes quizzing Voracek about life with the Flyers.
“What’s up with Philly? How’s Philly looking? How’s the team looking? How are the guys?” Voracek recalls Neuvirth asking, and Voracek replied with nothing but positive words. Neuvirth had always enjoyed Philadelphia as an off-day destination during his minor-league days—the city had better shopping than his AHL home in Hershey, Pa., and having Voracek and Radko Gudas, two fellow Czech natives, already in the locker room helped too. So on July 1, with Voracek still watching at Wimbledon, Neuvirth signed a two-year, $3.25 million deal to back up Steve Mason.
“We were very comfortable with Michal,” says GM Ron Hextall. “I thought we were fortunate to get him … I’ve always felt, and our staff’s always felt like he’s kind of under the radar.”
Now one month into his first season with the Flyers, his fourth NHL team in three years, Neuvirth has exceeded all expectations. He’s one bright spot during the team’s otherwise disappointing 5-8-3 start. With shutout victories against Florida, Chicago and Winnipeg, he became the first Philadelphia netminder to ever have three clean sheets in his first seven games with the club. League-wide through Nov. 12, among goaltenders with at least that many appearances, Neuvirth’s .939 save percentage ranked fourth, his 2.08 goals-against average was 11th and his .991 low-danger save percentage, a metric tabulated by War-on-Ice.com, was first. A 4–0 loss to Colorado on Nov. 10 somewhat blemished his scorching stretch, but otherwise Hextall felt justified saying that Neuvirth has “probably been our most consistent player.”
“He’s handling himself very well,” Gudas says. “The games he played, he was solid for us and he was big where we needed him. It’s good that we can trust both our goalies when they get put in. Sometimes you have one goalie that’s really good, other goalie that’s not as good, nobody really trusts him. But here you can tell, both our goalies make huge saves and keep us in games that we probably shouldn’t be in.”
After Neuvirth decided on his new home, nudged there by both Voracek’s advice at Wimbledon and the comforting presence of another Czech in Gudas, he went to work. Over the summer, he began training with Petr Prikryl, a former goaltender in the Czech Extraliga, at a local rink near his off-season home. He spent hours facing pucks fired from a shooting machine on a surface he described as “fake ice,” gloving upwards of 300 per session. Prikryl filmed video for later review and they often discussed keeping Neuvirth’s hands in front of his body, trying to fix his tendency of pulling them back when a shot was launched. “I was working on my hands a lot and on my reactions, and so far I feel like I’m seeing the puck better than I’m used to,” Neuvirth says. “My goal is to be a No. 1 and I got to earn the respect. Every opportunity I get, I got to play good, so I earn more ice time.”
A former OHL champion with the Plymouth Whalers and two-time Calder Cup champion with the Hershey Bears, Neuvirth left his first organization, the Capitals, under tenuous circumstances, shipped away to Buffalo at the 2014 trade deadline for Jaroslav Halak after getting tangled in a three-man goaltending web with Washington. Then, early last March, Neuvrith was dealt to the Islanders, coincidentally enough to serve as Halak’s backup. He made one relief appearance in the first round of the playoffs against the Capitals, mopping up during a Game 5 blistering at Verizon Center in D.C., and then entered this summer seeking an expanded role elsewhere.
“Finally I feel like I found a new home,” Neuvirth says.
For this, he thanks his countrymen. Newly single, Neuvirth often ventures across the street to Gudas’s apartment for Czech meals cooked by Gudas’s fiancé, heavy on dumplings and duck, because making meals alone isn’t as fun. “She loves to cook and we love the Czech food,” Neuvirth says. “There’s no way you can find it anywhere here in Philly.” They hang out at the complex’s pool and hot tub, and make the 10-minute drive to Wells Fargo Center together before games, sometimes thumping along to Czech music of Neuvirth’s choosing. Voracek often swings by their pads too, bringing along Czech beers for a lazy off day away from the rink.
“If we wouldn’t be here, I don't think he would have any problems getting in the collective and talking with the boys and anything like this,” Gudas says. “But obviously it’s nice to get away from the rink and talk a little Czech. That’s nice for sure.”
On Nov. 12 against his former team, Neuvirth donned a baseball cap and watched from the bench as Washington pelted Mason with 32 shots on goal in a 5–2 blowout, Philadelphia’s sixth loss in its past seven regulation decisions. Between a personal family matter and subsequent illness that sidelined Mason for a long stretch, Neuvirth’s nine appearances were more than Hextall and the Flyers anticipated this early into the season, but they have still backed Mason as their starter. Settled into a solid rhythm, already one shutout away from his career-high set with Washington during his official rookie season in 2010-11, Neuvirth understands the calculus.
“For me, the more I play, the better I feel like I can play better, the more confident I get,” he said. “But as a new guy on the team, you always want to play good and you’ve got to earn the respect of your teammates and the fans. I think it’s very important to start with a good start on a new team.
“So far, so good.”