BUFFALO – They are both 26 years old, young NHL veterans competing to become the Sabres’ starting goalie.
Right now, Michal Neuvirth, having started five of the last eight games, including the past two, has the upper hand. The Czech struggled badly during the preseason, then watched as Jhonas Enroth earned five of the first six nods.
But Neuvirth has rebounded recently, posting a .957 save percentage in his last two appearances.
Meanwhile, Enroth, tonight’s starter against the Edmonton Oilers, has stumbled recently, allowing nine goals in his last two starts. Still, the Swede looked sharp throughout the exhibition slate and his early-season work.
“I think it’s a healthy competition,” Enroth said Thursday inside the First Niagara Center.
Update: Neuvirth will start tonight.
The battle for the No. 1 job could go on for months. Neuvirth has a better save percentage (.925-.908) and goals-against average (2.60-3.34) than Enroth.
“They are just at that age when goalies flourish and start to show what their true value is in this league,” Sabres goalie coach Arturs Irbe said. “It’s not difficult to work, because I have two goaltenders that are very hungry. They want to prove themselves, and … they are looking for that opportunity to get the No. 1 job.”
Both goalies have mostly stood tall under a barrage of shots, becoming the Sabres’ early-season MVPs. Their porous defense has allowed 508 shots, a stunning 36.3 a game, the NHL’s highest total.
The Sabres have scored only 15 goals all season, so Enroth and Neuvirth have had no margin for error. They have three wins, all by one goal. The Sabres have been blanked in Enroth’s last two starts.
“Both guys have that bailing-out mentality at a very extreme level, which is great,” Irbe said.
Sabres coach Ted Nolan worked closely beside the loquacious Irbe, who played 568 NHL games over 13 seasons, with the Latvian national team and hired him in August. Nolan credits the 47-year-old for helping his goalies thrive.
“He’s … figured out a formula on how to maximize both of them at the same time, and so far it’s working,” Nolan said. “Almost every game we’ve played so far we couldn’t complain about our goaltending.”
At some point each practice, Irbe whispers encouraging words or offers advice to his goalies.
“Everything he says makes sense to me,” Neuvirth said. “When I found out he was going to be our goalie coach, I was excited.”
Irbe worked with the quiet Neuvirth for two seasons in Washington, where he started briefly for the Capitals at the end of 2010-11.
“I’ve been in this situation before in Washington,” Neuvirth said.
Irbe said he learned years ago Neuvirth’s a “quiet competitor.”
“I learned that he is very talented, very gifted guy that is very competitive,” he said. “He wants to win. He’s a winner. He has won in the minor leagues, (a Calder Cup). …
“He comes across as quiet and a really hard-to-read person sometimes, which is fine. But I know that he’s ultra-competitive. He enjoys goaltending.”
He added: “It’s about time to come out and bloom and become what he can be.”
Irbe has had to build a relationship with Enroth.
“With Jhonas, it’s a little different,” he said. “I’m learning, adjusting, and he’s adjusting to me. But he’s a very, very smart goaltender.”
Before Irbe, Enroth had one goalie coach, the popular Jim Corsi. The two grew close before the Sabres fired him following last season. Just thinking about Corsi on Thursday made Enroth laugh.
“Jimmy was a really good character,” Enroth said. “He meant a lot to me. … It’s different times now, and I like what we’ve been doing so far with Arturs.”
Irbe said he and Enroth “share some interesting similarities.”
“He’s a very big-time student of the game, very much so,” he said. “He analyzes things. He wants to understand everything. It’s pretty clear what he likes and what he wants to do. He’s strongly set on ways, and we have good conversations.”
Enroth and Neuvirth still enjoy good conversations. Despite the competition, the two are friends.
“I respect Jhony as a goalie,” Neuvirth said. “We’re making each other better every day in practice. We talked about stuff. Some things he does I like, and I try to copy from him.”
Irbe wants them to keep pushing each other.
“They can look back as the season goes on and say, ‘Goalies are doing their job,’” he said.
Of course, it’s very likely only one goalie will survive the battle. Both will be unrestricted free agents following the season.
“I’m still striving to be the guy here,” Enroth said. “I want to be here. I love Buffalo so far. I would like to play so good so I get an extension here. I’m just going to try to take it day-by-day.”