The Washington Capitals huddled on the ice ahead of Tuesday’s practice, and goaltending coach Scott Murray made an announcement.
Vitek Vanecek, the 25-year-old who finally has a chance at the NHL level following five years in the minors, was named the league’s rookie of the month. After a 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on Monday in which Washington blew a three-goal edge, the moment to highlight Vanecek’s strong contributions was a salve the team needed.
“Everyone woke up feeling pretty lousy today,” coach Peter Laviolette said, “so you’ve got to enjoy the good moments for a second when they come.”
Vanecek has seen considerable time on the ice this season because Ilya Samsonov — the presumptive starting goalie — has been on the NHL’s coronavirus protocol list since Jan. 20. Even before that, Vanecek seemed destined for more time in the minors or on the taxi squad when the Capitals signed experienced netminder Henrik Lundqvist this offseason.
But Lundqvist was ruled out for the season due to a heart condition, leaving Washington little choice but to trust two inexperienced options in net. Samsonov has hardly had time to prove himself, playing twice and recording a .868 save percentage.
Vanecek, though, has started seven straight games while Samsonov remains absent. He’s impressed in that time, too, compiling a 2.94 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. The Czech Republic native has won five games, lost one and brought two to overtime.
“I start feeling more comfortable and more comfortable,” Vanecek said.
In the month of January alone, Vanecek’s save percentage was .918. He recorded 30 saves in his first career start and has amassed as many as 45 stops in a game. He became the 11th goaltender in NHL history to open his career with a point streak of at least seven contests.
“It’s really nice when I heard it,” Vanecek said. “It’s good feeling right now, but I want to thank teammates too. They’re doing what they can, and they help me a lot with blocking shots and being in the front of net.”
Without Samsonov, Washington’s second-string goalie is 39-year-old Craig Anderson, a veteran in his 18th season. Anderson hasn’t featured yet, not with the way Vanecek has played. But Anderson’s presence has been valuable for Vanecek, offering a netminder 14 years his junior tips after games.
Vanecek soaks up the advice. He knows improvement in certain areas is still required, such as his puck handling behind his own net.
For much of Vanecek’s career, he’s split time in goal. That was the plan this year, too, between him and Samsonov. With Vanecek handling the load now, though, Laviolette said he tries to watch his minutes, making sure the Capitals don’t overuse the goalie.
“There’s been no back-to-backs, there hasn’t been a lot of travel lately, and so we’ve been in a good place to have him stay fresh and feel like he’s done a good job,” Laviolette said. “Right now, the schedule and the way he’s played has allowed him to stay in the crease.”
The NHL recognized Vanecek’s performances Tuesday, when they named him the rookie of the month. That led to Washington taking a moment before practice, announcing the news and allowing the bad feelings from the loss one night before to wash away.
“We had moved past all the garbage that we had to deal with from video and meetings in the morning and put it in the can and moved forward,” Laviolette said. “So that to me was just a good opportunity to turn the page and talk about something good and get ready for the next game. But it was a good moment for our guys, who are really happy for him with the way he’s played for us.”