There is no denying that the Washington Capitals are an improved team defensively this season. Look no further than the fact they entered Monday night with the No. 7 ranking in goals allowed per game (up from 15th a year ago) and owned the No. 5 penalty kill in the league (up from 25th).
Tuesday's 1-0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, however, wasn't about defensive improvement. It was about one player, and one player only: Goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
The 22-year-old was simply the best player on the ice from start to finish, stopping all 39 shots he faced against an injury-depleted Penguins team. Washington spent much of the night pinned in its own end and getting outshot by a 39-24 margin, including a 14-3 disadvantage in the third period. In the end, though, it didn't matter as the Penguins couldn't find a way to solve Neuvirth.
If his rebound control wasn't flawless, it was pretty damn close as he surrendered almost no second chance opportunities. On the rare occasion that he did, he simply stopped them, too. One of his best sequences of the night came midway through the second period when the Capitals were actually on the power play, stopping back-to-back breakaways (or partial breakaways) against Matt Cooke and Jordan Staal, keeping the game scoreless.
Two gigantic saves, and perhaps game-changers, especially since the Capitals would later score the game's only goal -- on the same power play -- thanks to an Alex Ovechkin bomb from just beyond the circles.
For Neuvirth, it's his second shutout against Pittsburgh this month, also stopping 22 shots in a 3-0 win back on Feb. 6. His other start against Pittsburgh this season was a 3-2 shootout loss back in late December, and in total, has stopped 86 of the 88 shots he's faced against the Penguins (that's a .977 save percentage).
Tuesday's game didn't seem to have the usual pre-game buzz and build-up of a typical Penguins-Capitals game, but it was still a pretty solid, tight-checking game with some great goaltending, big hits and a spirited scrap between Matt Bradley and Ryan Craig.
The Capitals ended up taking the regular season series 3-0-1, and have won 11 of the past 12 regular season games against the Penguins. And, of course, if the playoffs started on Tuesday this would be your No. 4 vs. 5 matchup in the Eastern Conference.
Washington, however, is quickly gaining on first place Tampa Bay and now trails the Lightning by just one point in the Southeast Division standings after Monday's win.