The Washington Capitals concluded a four-game Pacific Coast swing over the weekend. The team managed a 2-1-1 record with the help of Ilya Samsonov posting back-to-back shutouts. The 24-year-old netminder needed this type of performance to make the goalie competition in D.C. more interesting. He and the Capitals are in a good position if this type of play continues—at least for this season.
Capitals’ Samsonov Posts Back-to-Back Shutouts
Usually, when someone heads west to find themselves, it involves scouring the mountains, strolling the banks of an untainted lake, or plopping and staying in the sand on the beach with a little assistance from some recreational inspiration. All Samsonov needed was back-to-back shutouts in California, and he became the first Washington goalie to register at least six consecutive periods of no goals since 2017 (Braden Holtby) and the first to do it on the road since 1998 (Clint Malarchuk).
Samsonov was under pressure and searching for confidence. He hadn’t been performing as he’d hoped to start the season, and when Vitek Vanecek was forced to sit out (after suffering an arm injury) on Nov. 11 against the Detroit Red Wings, Zach Fucale was given the nod from head coach Peter Laviolette. He delivered by becoming the first Washington goalie to post a shutout in his debut with a 21-save, 2-0 win.
The seemed to create more controversy in the media than anything, as Fucale was sent back to the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, soon after. But Samsonov received the message and has responded.
It’s hard to imagine Samsonov was under pressure considering his 6-0-1 record, but the issue was how many goals he had been letting in. The offense bailed him out in three of his starts, and he was pulled from Washington’s Nov. 4 game against the Florida Panthers after giving up three goals on 18 shots – the Capitals still fought back to earn a point.
Samsonov’s save percentage (SV%) was just .902 before the road trip, which was a significant drop from posting a .924 a season ago, and his goals-against average (GAA) was 2.50. We saw glimpses of his ability, though; he registered his first shutout of the season on Oct. 29 versus the Arizona Coyotes. Granted, it was the Coyotes, but after recording three shutouts in his last five starts, things must be getting better.
Perhaps a cross-country trip was just what he needed. Samsonov now has six career shutouts after games against the Los Angeles Kings (Nov. 17) and San Jose Sharks (Nov. 20), when he faced 56 shots, including 11 on a combined six power plays between the two opponents.
His play while the defense is down a man has been solid. He’s only allowed two power-play goals and has a .939 SV%. Overall, he ranks 18th in save percentage (.924) and 15th in GAA (2.11) among NHL goalies. Before his last two games, he would have ranked 53rd and 26th in those categories, respectively.
Capitals’ Goalie Competition
There has been significant improvement in Samsonov’s play. Yet, it may not have been his early lapses that created concern, but rather he wasn’t keeping up with Vanecek statistically. The competition has since leveled out – they have each been pulled once for each other, after all. The tables have turned; Samsonov is distancing himself from Vanecek after rediscovering his game in California.
|Goalie||Age||Record||Save %||GAA||Shutouts||Salary||Contract End|
|Ilya Samsonov||24||6-0-1||.924||2.11||3||$2 Million||2021-22 (RFA)|
|Vitek Vanecek||25||4-3-4||.906||2.54||0||$716,667||2021-22 (RFA)|
Having two young, solid goalies shouldn’t be a problem for any franchise. It’s gluttonous, really. However, like enjoying junk food a little too much, changes are inevitable, and greed – to reference another deadly sin – in the form of a deserved contract will force Washington to make a decision. On the surface, going with Vanecek may be the cheaper option considering both goalies are restricted free agents at the end of the season, and their career numbers are very similar. In 53 games, Samsonov has a 2.54 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage, while Vanecek posts 2.66 and .908 in 49 career games.
The positive is that Washington appears to have a bright future in net, whether it’s Samsonov or Vanecek. The bittersweet reality is that it can’t be both. There is a difficult decision ahead for Washington, but as of now, they are in a great position to make a run at the Stanley Cup with two solid young goalies who are getting better and gaining more experience each game.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
Carl greatly enjoys interacting with his audience (except trolls who he refuses to embarrass with a response). Please use the comment section at the bottom of every THW article, and also feel free to chat with and follow him on Twitter. For interview and feature requests, please visit his Muck Rack profile.