When the Washington Capitals take the ice at TD Garden in Boston for Game 4 on Friday, most eyes will look to the first player emerging from the tunnel.
Traditionally, that’s a team’s goaltender.
And for the Capitals, there have been three different netminders who’ve led their teammates onto the ice for the first three games of this series.
Game 4 could be an opportunity to find some stability at the position, with either Craig Anderson or Ilya Samsonov primed for their second start of the series.
On the whole, Samsonov’s performance in Game 3 indicates he deserves another opportunity. For 85 minutes, Samsonov showed how good he can be — Washington’s top pick in the 2015 draft, blossoming into a regular starter in net. As the game ticked into the 86th minute, though, the two-sidedness to Samsonov made its presence all-too apparent, casting a shadow once more over the Capitals’ goaltending situation as the series advances to Game 4.
That’s when the critical miscommunication between Samsonov and defenseman Justin Schultz occurred, and that’s when Boston’s Craig Smith pounced, stealing the puck and giving the Bruins a 2-1 series lead.
But to Washington, those five seconds — however grievous — don’t take away from Samsonov’s first 85 minutes. And coach Peter Laviolette can back that sentiment up in Game 4 if he starts the young netminder again.
“I talked to him last night,” Laviolette said. “He played a heck of a game. I talked to him about that, first and foremost. The miscommunication, there’s two people involved there. The communication’s got to be better. Think one person was thinking one thing, it seemed like a pretty harmless play, and it ended up poorly.”
If it hadn’t been for Samsonov, the Capitals might’ve lost Game 3 against the Bruins much earlier than the second overtime period.
He made 40 saves, including 17 in in the first overtime, when the game had tipped Boston’s way. Earlier, it was Samsonov who turned aside shots against a 5-on-3 power play in the first period. He finished with 1.3 goals saved above expected, according to Money Puck, and his .930 save percentage was the sixth-best mark of his season.
“If he didn’t stand on his head, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to that point,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I think he should know that, but that’s definitely something we’ll talk about.”
Late in the second overtime period, though, disaster struck. A loose puck went behind Washington’s net, and Samsonov left his post to gather. He waited for Schultz to come collect the puck. Instead, Schultz angled away, as if expecting a chip to the corner. Either option could’ve worked, Laviolette said, but Smith reacted first to the miscommunication and buried the wrap-around attempt.
“We’ll [be] better next time,” Samsonov said. “More communication, more talking.”
Samsonov, at 24, made his playoff debut Wednesday after missing two weeks on the coronavirus protocol list. He hadn’t played a game since May 1, and perhaps that time away from the ice factored into the costly miscommunication. He had faced shots in just three practices before the game, Samsonov said. Or perhaps Samsonov’s relative inexperience overall played a role.
The Capitals’ goaltending situation has been an area of intrigue since the offseason. General manager Brian MacLellan signed veteran netminder Henrik Lundqvist with the idea the longtime New York Rangers shot-stopper would mentor Samsonov, easing the pressure on a goalie who had started just 22 career games.
But Lundqvist required heart surgery, ruling him out for the season. And Washington shifted its trust to a pair of inexperienced options — Samsonov and rookie Vitek Vanecek. The issues compounded once Samsonov tested positive for the coronavirus in January, missing 20 games before he returned to the ice Feb. 28.
With Samsonov absent for a large stretch, Vanecek made his mark. But Vanecek suffered a lower-body injury to begin the series, prompting Anderson to fill in. The 39-year-old netminder recorded 44 saves in Monday’s overtime loss, but he sat Wednesday due to body “maintenance,” Laviolette said, and Samsonov earned his chance.
Anderson will be available for Friday’s game, but there’s no indication which direction Laviolette will turn. For the vast majority of Wednesday’s contest, Samsonov impressed, keeping Washington afloat against a strong Boston attack.
If those 85 minutes of good outweigh the five seconds of bad, then Samsonov will likely hop onto the ice Friday night, ready to go once more. If not, the goalie rotation the Capitals have faced all year will continue.
“We’ve had adversity all season long, in the playoffs early on here,” winger Tom Wilson said. “We’ve got a lot of good talent in this room and Sammy played an amazing game, stepping into a tough situation. He was one of our best players.”