Before the season began, when the Capitals’ goaltending situation was still largely unknown, coach Peter Laviolette said he wouldn’t box himself in with a specific split between his inexperienced options. Instead, Laviolette would trust the hot hand, riding whichever goalie was having the better run of games.
He doesn’t have the competition now between two young netminders, not after Ilya Samsonov was added to the NHL’s coronavirus protocol list. But Vitek Vanecek, who has started three straight games, is making the case that he can be the top option moving forward, with another contest Tuesday against the New York Islanders.
Vanecek has impressed in his four games this season, and his performance in a shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday underscored how the 25-year-old rookie could be playing his way into a larger role.
“We came into the training camp and our eyes were open. There was no set path for us. We were looking for someone to grab the crease,” Laviolette said. “Vitek has had a few good games now, and [Sunday] was another one where he gave us an opportunity to win and we didn’t, but he gave us an opportunity to get a point. So he’s making the most of his chance.”
Vanecek produced solid numbers with the Hershey Bears in the AHL the last two seasons, but his 2.26 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 2019-20 were especially standout. There were questions as to how he would adapt at the NHL level, though.
In his four games, Vanecek has a .912 save percentage and has allowed 2.87 goals per game. He’s yet to lose in regulation, and he won his first start with a 30-save outing against Buffalo on Jan. 15.
Early on, Laviolette noticed Vanecek’s rebound control could improve and his puck handling away from the goalmouth could use work. Since then, though, the coach has been impressed with Vanecek’s strides in a short time.
“Maybe you’re thinking about things in your first couple games,” Laviolette said, “so the more he gets game time and the more he gets opportunities to play, probably the more comfortable he gets in those types of situations.”
With Samsonov out for at least four games — the earliest the 23-year-old goalie could return is Jan. 30 — Vanecek has maximized his opportunity. He denied each of the Sabres’ shootout attempts in Friday’s win, then posted 45 saves in Sunday’s loss, the most from a Capitals rookie in nearly 39 years.
He allowed the shootout winner to Jack Eichel but showed good movement around his crease. Vanecek produced five saves in a fast-paced overtime period, and he leaned over to kiss the post when a penalty shot from Taylor Hall in the third period caromed off the pipe.
“I hope so,” Vanecek said Friday when asked if he can take advantage of his chance. “I want to play as many games as I can if they give me the chance, and I will do the best for the team and try to win the games.”
With a compressed schedule, goalie Craig Anderson — who Washington activated from the taxi squad to cover for Samsonov’s absence — might see time between the pipes, too. But in the moments Vanecek has been on the ice, the rookie has shown he’s capable of the bigger stage.
Samsonov is a former first-round draft pick who was the perceived No. 1 option in goal when the season began. Whenever Samsonov does return, though, there’s no guarantee Vanecek will relinquish the top spot based on his performances.
“He’s been unreal,” defenseman Justin Schultz said. “Every game he’s played he’s kept us in it at times when we haven’t played as well, and [Sunday] was no exception. He made some huge saves, especially in overtime, and allowed us to get a point at least.”