When the Washington Capitals’ season began, the outward projection from coach Peter Laviolette and players was their belief in the two young netminders who had just 22 combined NHL starts under their belts.
They hadn’t proven their ability at the NHL level, but Washington had few other options available. And when one of those two goalies wound up missing a month after testing positive for the coronavirus, the team’s outlook in net appeared even more precarious.
But slightly more than halfway through the shortened 56-game season, the Capitals’ trust in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek seems warranted. Vanecek has impressed the most, especially since Samsonov has only appeared seven times since returning from his bout with the coronavirus.
As they share responsibilities in net, though, the pair of inexperienced shot-stoppers are proving themselves as a strong tandem in the Capitals’ push to the top of the East Division.
“It’s good. I think we need to play both guys,” Vanecek said of the rotation. “We’re still young and learning in the NHL, so it’s good we are getting ice time.”
Washington didn’t plan for Vanecek and Samsonov to hold down duties in the crease. General manager Brian MacLellan signed 39-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, who spent 15 seasons with New York Rangers goaltender, seemingly to assist Samsonov development into a No. 1 goalie.
But Lundqvist was ruled out for the season after a physical deemed he required heart surgery. That left the Capitals with Samsonov shouldering a larger role than initially expected, with Vanecek moving into the rotation.
For Vanecek, this opportunity has been a long time coming. The 25-year-old Czech Republic native spent five seasons in the AHL, often competing with Samsonov, and he compiled a .906 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against average that level.
And in Vanecek’s 22 appearances for the Capitals this season, he’s performing at an equally high level. He came up big when Washington was without Samsonov — although he displayed some rebound control issues that reminded of his inexperience — and is producing a 2.66 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage.
“He’s really seized the opportunity that he’s been given,” MacLellan said earlier this month. “Nothing we would have predicted coming into the year. He’s been solid. I think he’s improving. He’s been given a lot of responsibility and he’s handled it. It’s impressive, what he’s done, for where he’s at. From going from not getting the opportunity that he deserved to taking advantage of a situation and running.”
Samsonov, meanwhile, struggled to return from the coronavirus. He was activated off the protocol list on Feb. 8, but he needed four appearances with the Hershey Bears in the AHL to work back up to full fitness before he returned to the ice for the Capitals on Feb. 28.
He won his first five starts after returning before Saturday’s loss to the New York Islanders — which snapped Washington’s seven-game winning streak. And he’s holding a .908 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average.
“Every game he seems to be getting better and better,” defenseman Brenden Dillon said last week, “and that’s a great sign for us as a team.”
Since Samsonov returned to the fray, he and Vanecek have shared duties, with neither holding the definitive No. 1 goalie role. There’s been little dropoff between the pair, propelling the Capitals to 11 wins in their last 13 games.
The duo might have entered the season as an unproven tandem, but they’re holding their own now.
“I feel comfortable in the net,” Vanecek said. “Working hard for the team to help them win every game, you know. So feel really comfortable.”