The Calder Cup Finals match up between the Hershey Bears and Manitoba Moose, which figured to be a dandy of series, considering the fact that the two clubs finished within a point of each other in the regular season, has not disappointed through the first five games.
Arguably, the biggest reason that the series has lived up to expectations is the glittering goaltending exhibition that has been on display, featuring Moose netminder, Cory Schneider, and Hershey backstopper, Michal Neuvirth.
Entering this series, the duo who were not born in the same year but only days apart, possessed identical playoff numbers in games played (16), wins and losses (12-4) and goals against (33), with Schneider showing a slightly lower goals against average (2.00 to 2.03), and Neuvirth nosing out his counterpart in the save percentage category (.929 to .925).
Despite the statistical similarities between Schneider and Neuvirth, the routes that the sure-fire future NHL goaltenders traveled to get this spot on the map have been anything but identical, with Schneider cruising along at a steady speed, but Neuvirth taking the circuitous route.
Schneider, the 23 year-old native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was drafted in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2004 NHL Entry draft after he led Team USA Under 18 Selects to the gold medal in the Under 18 World Junior Cup, but before he had played his first game at Boston College.
Obviously, the Vancouver scouts who were instrumental in selecting Schneider had a keen eye in noticing his star potential, as he put up stellar numbers in all three of his seasons guarding the “Eagles’ Nest”.
During his three seasons at B.C., he registered 65 wins and 15 shutouts, including a school record 8 whitewashes in the 05-06 season, when he led the Eagles to the finals of the NCAA tournament, where they ultimately fell in the championship game to the University of Wisconsin Badgers, who featured Hershey forward, Andrew Joudrey, in their lineup.
Turning pro in the 2007-08 season, Schneider’s transition to the pro game went very smoothly, as he eclipsed the 20-win plateau and led the Moose to the Calder Cup playoffs, where he suffered four heartbreaking overtime losses to the Syracuse Crunch in the Moose’s first round ouster.
Refusing to succumb to the sophomore jinx, Schneider was named the recipient of the Aldege “Buzz’ Bastein award this season, and also earned eight games in the NHL with Canucks, thanks to his noble numbers in the AHL.
Neuvirth’s roller coaster ride began when he was selected by the Washington Capitals in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, 11 selections after the Caps chose Simeon Varlamov, who is seemingly the 21 year-old native of the Czech Republic’s biggest obstacle to overcome for a position with Washington in next years’ training camp.
Neuvirth’s travels to the shores of North American started innocently enough in the 2006-07 season when he tallied 26 wins in 41 appearances with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, leading the Whalers to the OHL championship and earning the F.W. “Dinty” Moore Trophy as the first-year goaltender with the lowest goals against average in the process.
Neuvirth’s second season in the OHL proved to be rather trying, as the young Czech netminder was twice traded and “tended the twine” for three different clubs before a season-ending knee injury in the playoffs ended his season.
In hindsight, it was probably a blessing that Neuvirth endured such an arduous adventure in his sophomore season, as that experience no doubt helped prepare him to ride out the twister of the 2008-09 season.
After failing to make the Capitals out of training camp, Neuvirth plied his trade for one game with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL before being dispatched to Hershey, while the Capitals’ goaltending glut sorted itself out.
With Varlamov already in Hershey and incumbent, Daren Machesney, also returning to Chocolatetown, Neuvirth was relegated to being a practice goalie while the organization searched for a locale in the AHL in which he would be afforded some much needed playing time.
With no suitable facilitator for Neuvirth’s services, the rookie pro was sent back to his native Czech Republic, while his situation was settled. When Neuvirth returned to the United States, he was once again sent to South Carolina of the ECHL where he posted sparkling numbers, despite an unimpressive win-loss record.
Finally, on December 27th Neuvirth earned a belated Christmas present, his 1st AHL start, a 4-1 loss to the Binghamton Senators at Giant Center. After making his AHL debut, Neuvirth went on to make 16 additional starts for the Bears, winning five out of his last six after being handed the ball down the stretch.
Despite the current battle between his team and the Hershey Bears, and more specifically the natural rivalry between netminders, Schneider sees and appreciates the talent at the other end of the ice.
“Some nights, one guy is better than the other, but he (Neuvirth) has been fantastic,” said Schneider, after Game 5 of the Calder Cup finals at Giant Center. “He looks great for a young guy and he shows a lot of poise, and doesn’t seem to get rattled too easily.”